Somehow over the course of the 4 months I’ve lived here and the 2 trips I’d made to the city previously, I had never managed to make it to London’s Chinatown… that is until the Friday night before Lunar New Year.
I’m not usually a fan of going out alone at night in the city. It isn’t because it’s particularly unsafe here or that I don’t like to wander out by myself, but there’s something about nightfall that leaves me longing to head to the nearest tube stop to go back to my flat for a warm cup of tea. Usually that’s exactly what I do, but something last week changed. I’d been having a particularly rough couple of weeks between leaving home and readjusting, and suddenly something inside of me either snapped or clicked and I found myself simply dying to get out; night or day didn’t matter at all anymore.
I did some research looking for a bakery that carries moon cakes year round since they’re primarily served around the mid-autumn festival. Thankfully, I managed to find one, and so last Friday evening after a Roman archaeology seminar I set out in search of my moon cake.
The walk from the Strand to Chinatown wasn’t particularly long, and, with the cold winds encouraging me to keep up the pace, I was there within 15 minutes. As soon as I saw the strings of bright red illuminated lanterns covering the tops of the streets, I regretted not having made my way here before. It was so close to my campus and yet somehow I’d missed it. The large ornate arches hovered over the entrance to the pedestrian-only cobble stone streets that welcome visitors into the winding rows of grocery stores, bakeries, and incredibly aromatic restaurants. Needless to say that on the Friday night before Lunar New Year, the streets were pretty packed.
Shop windows were illuminated with decorations and lanterns in honor of the new year. There were paper roosters aplenty (2017 is the year of the rooster after all). For a moment it felt like I had taken a wrong turn somewhere along the road and had ended up in another country. A bright green grocery store with candy lining the windows caught my eye, and I stumbled into the crowded shop, briefly escaping the winter weather. There were strange drinks lining the refrigerator and I had no hope of reading their labels. Brightly colored boxes of candies and small toys filled shelves in the middle of the store. The walls were covered from floor to ceiling in an colorful array of teas and coffees. I picked up a box of matcha green tea, something I’d been wanting to buy, but hadn’t been able to find in my local grocery store. I ducked out after purchasing and bundling the box of tea satchels in my bag.
Of course, I left that small store only to find myself in a massive 3 story Asian food store. Each floor had its own collection of foods from different countries. I made my way to the second floor thus finding myself immersed in aisles of packaged sushi seaweed in the Japanese section. After doing my best to maneuver around the large crowds (which were made up of either locals buying ingredients for new years feasts or stray backpackers), I headed back to the ground floor where I found the most incredible £1.50 paper dragon I have ever or will ever see and stacks of pints of green tea ice cream. Needless to say I went home with both the dragon and the ice cream.
My last stop of the night was one of the bakeries I had read about in my search for the moon cake. It didn’t disappoint with its cases full of intricately decorated cakes and purple and green twisted buns of bread. I found my moon cake, paid, and felt incredibly pleased with myself as I departed.
I wound through the crowds once more and completed a final lap of the area just to make sure I could take everything in fully. It really felt like I’d left London. The bright colors of the hanging lanterns and beautifully roasted ducks hanging in storefronts seemed practically surreal. There I was, alone on a Friday night wandering through streets illuminated by lanterns and accidentally navigating collections of seaweed in a multiple-story Asian grocery store. How strange and wonderful.
This is the kind of thing that, to me, makes London incredibly unique. It’s the kind of city in which you can do and see whatever you like. Everything is accessible if only you do your research and are willing to brave the January weather.
So I headed home with my paper dragon, moon cake, and green tea ice cream, and despite the freezing temperature, something inside of me felt inexplicably warm. I don’t know if it’s the pleasant and satisfied feeling I get when I find a new place that I love or if it’s me finally settling back into my home abroad. Whatever the feeling was, after the last couple of weeks, it was greatly appreciated.