Happy New Year, my China

Private Property South Africa
Shaun Wewege

When I first heard that it was year of the horse, I assumed that 2014 would see an increase in people betting on races or larger attendances at swanky events like the J&B Met. I later realised that it is the Chinese year of the horse and this would give us an opportunity to celebrate the cultural New Year in Chinatown in Cyrildene.

We booked at Mongkok and were given a table close to the road, where we had front-row seats to the festivities and an excellent vantage point from which to engage in one of my favourite pastimes: people watching. The show attracted people from all walks of life and a variety of cultures – there were locals, families, students out for a big night, and a fellow who looked remarkably like Richard O’ Brien’s Riff Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The big bang theory

The festival started, quite literally, with a bang as the Lion Dance roared into life. As the lion moved from store to store, igniting a string of crackers at each one, the smell of gunpowder hung in the air but nobody seemed to mind. This is Johannesburg, after all.

Food-wise, we were at first a little concerned. We ordered a set menu for six people and throughout the first hour of the first dance did not receive any dishes. Hunger pangs set in. We began to worry that we’d only be fed once the lion had made its way through every store in Cyrildene. Our fears were unfounded. In fact, not only were we treated to the dishes on our set menu, but also a number of items that were only meant to be available to larger groups. We will never know if Mongkok had overcatered, made an error with our order or decided to abandon the menu as a gesture of goodwill.

A taste of China

We had spicy prawns, chicken and cashew nuts, roast duck, roast chicken, egg-fried rice, pork ribs, pork chop suey, chicken chop suey, corn and chicken soup and bow ties. We also managed to guzzle a few tins of Tsing Tao, an Asian beer.

But overall, I think that Mongkok aims its menu at “tourists”. While digesting, I walked through the streets and noted some more exotic dishes at a few of the other restaurants. My advice would be to check your chosen eatery’s set menu in advance – you’ll be disappointed if you want authentic cuisine and end up with bowls of food aimed at visitors; just as you’ll feel green if you are hoping for egg-fried rice and get a plate full of eel.

It’s a sign …

There was one endearing peculiarity to our Chinese New Year celebration. The web is filled with sites that showcase signs on which messages have been interpreted strangely. A sign that asks patrons not to eat in a store may be directly translated as “Please don’t be edible”. That night, we spotted a sign, placed by a local committee, which informed visitors that no illegal firearms, drugs or kidnapping would be tolerated. I am totally illiterate in Mandarin and will always wonder if predatory characters wander the streets of Cyrildene, or if the Mandarin term for underage drinking was lost in translation.

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