February sees the beginning of the Chinese New Year, and this year the people of Cork are being invited to experience the rich tradition and rituals around it, writes Helen O’Callaghan.
One thousand candles lighting in a chapel, feeding lettuce to a lion and determining whether your Chinese sign of the Zodiac might be in conflict with this year’s ruling sign of the Pig — it’s all part of how Chinese New Year will be celebrated in Cork on Monday.
Nano Nagle Place and Cork Chinese Esoteric Buddhist School, supported by Cork City Council, are hosting Cork’s first official Chinese New Year Festival.
"It’s very exciting, it’s open to everybody to engage in and it’s free," says Kieran O’Connell, social inclusion development worker at Cork City Council Community and Enterprise Section.
“The aim is to open up Chinese culture to Cork people and to show local Chinese people: ‘We’re here and we’re supportive of you’.”
Since 2005, Cork and Shanghai have been sister cities and the connection has been so successful that three other cities asked to partner with Cork — Hangzhou, Shenzhen and Wuxi. Pat Ledwidge, Cork City Council deputy chief executive, estimates 1,200-1,500 Chinese people live in the wider Cork region.
“Cork has three Chinese communities — a very old one that came from South China in the 1950s and ’60s, who went into the restaurant trade and who are very integrated now; people who came from the mid-1990s to work; and a large community of 300-400 Chinese students, mainly in UCC and some in CIT.”
Ledwidge knows Chinese people who have been living here up to 20 years.
“They enjoy living in Cork, they see opportunities — many have taken out Irish citizenship.”
What’s exciting about those currently coming to study, he says, is that many are staying on to work.
Testifying to strong Cork/Chinese relations is the presence here of large companies: Chinese tech giant Huawei has offices at the Capitol building in Cork City.
Beingmate has established offices in Mahon and, in recent years, the Beijing-based Kang family bought the Kingsley Hotel and Fota estate in Cork.
While acknowledging that China’s culture “is, on the surface, not one we’d have a lot of contact with”, Ledwidge sees big similarities between the Chinese and the Irish.
“Chinese people are very family-oriented and place huge value on education.
"And in the same way that we get irony — we sometimes say things we mightn’t mean — Chinese people won’t say ‘no’ to you.
"They have a thousand ways of conveying the concept, but you have to read the signs.
“The collective is very important in Chinese society — it’s not a ‘me’ society. In Ireland, we’re not so far down the ‘me’ way as some other Western countries.
Chinese New Year is better known in China as Spring Festival and is also celebrated in Korea and Japan.
Chinese New Year events in Cork are well attended by families with children adopted from Asia — it’s a chance for them to explore their native culture.
Mary P O’Connor, organiser of the Cork Chinese New Year Festival and leader of the Chinese Esoteric Buddhist School in Ireland wants to see next Monday’s event extend to a week-long festival in 2020, including interactive events in schools.
The festival committee hopes to utilise the entire gardens at Nano Nagle place next year.
“The [celebrations] have a resonance with the spirituality of Nano Nagle.
"The nuns are happy to have it here because it’s part of their wider spiritual message to the world,” says O’Connor.
Monday’s event will open at 4pm with a Lions and Dragon Dance in the front plaza of Nano Nagle Place.
It is believed the lion is an auspicious animal, symbolising power, wisdom and superiority — lion dances are performed to bring good fortune and chase away evil spirits, with performances accompanied by beating drums, clashing cymbals and resounding gongs. Dragons symbolise wisdom, power and wealth — the dragon dance dates to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), when it was used ceremonially to worship ancestors and pray for rain.
“The lion and the dragon — martial artists inside traditional Chinese costumes — will lead everybody, audience included, through Nano Nagle gardens, through the museum and into the church,” says O’Connor.
The 1,000-Light ceremony takes place in the Goldie Chapel at 5pm.
“About 20 Buddhist nuns and monks will chant in Sanskrit, in very stylised ritual.
"During the chanting, the audience will be invited to light one or more of 1,000 candles.
But sound is also integral to both ceremonies — the drums, cymbals and gongs accompanying the dance and the chanting monks and nuns.
“Words and sounds have power. Sound — vibration of sound — no matter where it comes from, has a power. Rituals that invoke sound and prayer have power,” says O’Connor.
Another highlight is the An Tai Sui Dharma Rite at 7.15pm. This is to ‘extinguish spiritual obstacles, alleviate disasters and suffering’ — essentially a prayer ceremony to make peace with the upcoming year.
O’Connor explains that if your personal Chinese zodiac sign isn’t in a favourable relationship with the current year’s ruling sign, it can cause challenging circumstances throughout the year.
With Chinese New Year on February 4 heralding the start of the Year of the Pig, the four ‘offending’ signs are those born in the Year of the Monkey (1978, 1990, 2002, 2014), Tiger (1974, 1986, 1988, 2010), Snake (1965, 1977, 1989, 2001) and, surprisingly, Pig itself (1983, 1995, 2007, 2019).
O’Connor — born in the Year of the Pig — expects to “face a bumpy ride” in 2019. “There’ll be peaks and troughs. It can also be a transformative year — sometimes you need to go through trials and struggles to come out the other side.”
For Kieran O’Connell (born in the Year of the Horse), Monday’s Chinese New Year Festival is a sign of how vibrant and multicultural Cork is — according to the recent Census, 13% of the city’s population is non-Irish. O’Connell sees two elements to the festival — the bright, vibrant Lions and Dragon Dance and the more solemn 1,000-light ceremony.
“It all adds a bit of colour and vibrancy at this time of year. And it adds another multicultural dimension to our city.”
For more info and on the Chinese New Year Festival, February 4, visit www.corkchinesenewyear.com
UCC’s Confucius Institute and Cork City Council are hosting a Chinese Spring Festival Gala at Cork City Hall on Monday, February 18 (7-8.30pm).
The award-winning international Hubei Provincial Opera and Dance Drama Theatre group will perform Chinese opera and folk dance.
Over the past half-century, the group has produced/performed a large number of plays like the large-scale national opera, The Honghu Red Guards, regarded as the classical Chinese opera of the 20th century.
Dr Catherine (Xiaohong) Xu, Chinese Co-Director of UCC Confucius Institute, says the gala will feature arts and instrumental performances, as well as acrobatics, Peking Opera and the world heritage act of sword dance.
With 2019 marking the 40th anniversary of the diplomatic relationship between China and Ireland, she says:
Cork City Council supports the Confucius Institute to offer student and teacher exchanges between Cork and Chinese primary and second-level schools.
This is to promote cross-cultural and social understanding among young people. Every October 12 teachers travel to Shanghai and Hangzhou and at Easter about 100 pupils, generally secondary school, spend a week to 10 days in these cities. Each academic year, the Confucius Institute brings 30 volunteer teachers to teach Chinese in secondary schools around Co Cork.
Chinese Spring Festival Gala, Cork City Hall, Monday, February 18 (7-8.30pm); free admission – book in advance at www.eventbrite.ie/e/2019-chinese-spring-festival-gala-tickets.