Sunday, June 8, 2008

Chinese New Year In Mons, Belgium

In February 2008 I witnessed a celebration of the Chinese New Year in the winding streets of Mons in Belgium’s French speaking Wallonia region. I was actually surprised that Mons would be the site of a major Asian festival. I would have expected to see something like this in a West Coast city like Vancouver or San Francisco, or in Asia itself, or perhaps a very large imperial capital like London, but not in a smaller provincial city like Mons.

Mons is a quite old city located in Belgium’s French speaking Wallonia region, dating back to the Roman period. Although Mons was a provincial city dwarfed by large nearby Flemish cities like Ghent, Brugge, or Antwerp during the Middle Ages, it was still a sizable city with about ten thousand people at the end of the medieval period, along with cathedrals, city towers, and fortifications. One medieval custom that still takes place in Mons is a procession in honor of Saint Waltrude. The festival, known as the Doudou, involves thousands of people following a great white carriage through the city and reenacting the battle between St. George and the Dragon.

I spent a day in this small city after conducting some business at the nearby NATO headquarters, so I wandered into the town center to explore. Unfortunately most of the museums were closed, so I just wandered about the narrow streets until I found the market square surrounded by a large tower along with stone medieval or early modern buildings. Usually these squares were the center of acivity and shopping in Belgian cities. I noticed that several of the buildings in the square had strings of firecrackers dangling in front of them. At the moment I didn’t think too much about them as I continued to explore. Eventually I wandered into an open cafĂ© and ordered a dark beer to relax. While I sat there reading a book and drinking beer, I started to hear the staccato reports of strings of firecrackers exploding somewhere in the city. Eventually my curiosity got the best of me and I went out into the street to find out what was going on.

One of the streets leaving the market was filled with a huge crowd partly obscured by thick plumes of white smoke. I could hear loud drums in the distance. Since the crowd was quite a ways down the street, I wandered down there to see what was going on. By the time I got there, the smoke had cleared and I could see two Chinese dragons, one red and one white, dancing about in the middle of the crowd, grabbing lettuce and cauliflower hanging in the front of a business while a group of drummers played out a loud repetitive cadence. The cobblestone street was covered with bits of shredded red sheets of paper from firecrackers that had already exploded. The next shop down the street had a long strand of red firecrackers handing in front of it. Then I realized that I was witnessing a celebration of the Chinese New Year, half way around the world from China itself. Apparently the participating shops would hang firecrackers and offerings in the form of vegetables in front of their shops. The dragons (actually several people under a dragon costume working in unison) would travel from one shop to the next, exploding the firecrackers and consuming the gift offerings while dancing about. Eventually, the dragons moved to the next shop, and I was treated to the eardrum splitting sound of quite large firecrackers exploding one after the other while I gradually retreated to protect my hearing. This festival continued for the rest of the afternoon when it finally culminated at the Market Square.

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