Hong Kong Island

The evening after the parade, the city government treated its citizens and visitors to a giant New Year fireworks show in Victoria Harbour, just between the main areas of Hong Kong Island (香港島) and Kowloon (九龍). Throughout the day, large explosive-laden barges anchored themselves just off the pier, fire-fighting boats chugged round them to douse any mishaps and police speedboats skipped to and fro making sure that everything was aimed up. The best vantage point was reckoned to be the Avenue of the Stars, Hong Kong’s equivalent of Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, which looked out across the water and had the city skyline as a gorgeous backdrop. I, like several thousand other people, arrived well over two hours early and quickly found that the best spots along the waterfront had been taken by people who’d arrived even earlier. With memories of trying to set up a tripod at the Busan Fireworks Festival still relatively fresh in my mind, I resolved to get a spot as quickly as possible and resist all efforts to move me from it. The roof of the nearby Intercontinental Hotel was out, so I found a really short local photographer (already the the front) and surreptitiously set up my tripod behind him so it could peek over his head.

Hong Kong New Year Fireworks 2010 (13)As things turned out, the gods smiled on my efforts to get a clear shot and a young couple just next to the short photographer left to get some dinner, offering me their place against the safety railings. I quickly set up so that my tripod could still see into the action if they decided to return, but they either found a better spot or couldn’t get through the crowds later on. To top things off, the light rain that had been falling all evening stopped just before the fireworks were due to start, drying everyone out and removing all fears about equipment getting wet. Thankfully, this time my lens stayed factory-fresh throughout a spectacular display, and you can see the results here.

Above: Hong Kong Island from Kowloon. Left and Below: Hong Kong New Year Fireworks.

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New Year BalloonThe Year of the Tiger dawned with little perceptible fanfare in the city, the major civic events being unapologetically scheduled for the next couple of days. The first one was the heavily-sponsored New Year Parade, a collection of floats, balloons and various local and international dance/performance groups taking a short walk around the Kowloon (九龍) area. Thousands of people braved the light rain to come and cheer everyone on, though there was noticeable confusion over the inclusion of recycled Halloween- and Christmas-themed entrants such as the American Express Giant Carved Pumpkin Balloon.

Left: A New Year mascot balloon (which looks a bit Korean to me). Below, left to right: A traditional multi-person dragon costume; an anachronistic entrant, a steward keeping the right distance between acts by telling them to speed up, one of the flag-carriers.

New Year Dragon (2)New Year Dragon (1)

Anachronistic mascotFloat directionsArezzo Flag Wavers (1)

Hong Kong Police Band (4)While everyone was waiting for the events proper to start, a few warm-up acts were released to provide some entertainment to distract from the enormous delay (though the arrest of a few nearby pickpockets proved entertaining enough). The most notable of these was the local police bagpipe/marching band, the story behind which I have no idea. They stopped just a few yards down from where I was standing, played Highland Cathedral (which is the HK Police Force’s unofficial anthem) and then walked past to cheers and sniffles from the crowd.

Left: The bagpipe/marching band.

Hong Kong Police Band (2)The strobe light-like effect of hundreds of peoples’ camera flashes announced the arrival of the first floats long before we could actually see them, one of which was the stately Cathay Pacific “here are some flight attendants” effort – I mention it due to the heart-warming sight of two old guys chugging it along at 2 mph paying scrupulous attention to in-flight safety by wearing seatbelts.

Left: The bagpipe/marching band. Below, left to right: A Swiss tiger-themed band; the bagpipe/marching band, the Belgian stilt-walkers; a flag-carrier throws and catches his flag.

Swiss tiger band (1)Swiss tiger band (2)

Hong Kong Police Band (1)Hong Kong Police Band (3)Royal Stiltwalkers of Merchtem

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Notting Hill (1)There were plenty of dragons and tigers in attendance of course, and for some reason more local ballet/dance schools than I could count. Of the international acts, the Italian Arezzo Flag-Wavers did a great job wowing the crow, as did the Belgian Royal Stiltwalkers of Merchtem. The UK sent a rather overwhelmed-looking marching band in full military regalia, and some rather more audacious Notting Hill Carnival acts. However, especially after some slightly staid floats promoting tourism in China and Thailand, the contingent from South Korea really stole the show. It was as though Seoul’s government got one of the up-and-coming-and-eager-to-impress local performance groups and said to them, “We have our own thing going on here with Seollal (Korean New Year), and we don’t really care about promoting ourselves to Hong Kong. Forget anything tiger-, China- or Korea-related, be creative and do whatever you like. Here’s 100 million won; try and make it fun.” Whoever got that commission simply took it and ran with it – from all the way down the street, we could hear a giant musical racket and could just about glimpse gigantic Alien-esque figures running about. As they came closer, they revealed themselves to be very lightweight wearable puppets that could move and dance at astonishing speed (one expects large float mascots to move ponderously), accompanied by bicycle-powered aquatic animals pumping out the tunes. They jigged past us in a flurry of unrehearsed dance moves, and everything after them felt a little flat.

Left: Notting Hill’s swan costume. Below, left to right:Seoul’s aqua-themed floats; two of Seoul’s dancing alien puppet mascots, a dragon from the Notting Hill Carnival crew.

Seoul aquatic costumes (1)Seoul aquatic costumes (2)

Seoul alien (2)Seoul alien (1)Notting Hill (2)

Anseong snack vendorAmy and I had thought our festival season over after Andong, but events conspired to take us to one more. I ran into Sunny quite by accident on the bus out of Seoul, and he invited us along to the Anseong Namsadang Baudeogi Festival (안성 남사당 바우덕이 축제) – a traditional performing arts event held in a small city just to the south of Yongin.

To provide some background, a Namsadang is a wandering troupe of performers who specialise in a certain skill set (principally acrobatics, singing, playing music, puppetry and dancing). In ancient times they would have wandered from city to city plying their trade, but these days the centre of the Namsadang universe is Anseong (close enough to Seoul that members of the aristocracy could travel to see performances, but far enough away to retain the folksy roots). Baudeogi, or Kim Am-Deok (김암덕), was the most talented Namsadang performer ever to grace the festival squares – adopted into a troupe at the age of four, she excelled in all disciplines and was eventually elected kkokdusoe (꼭두쇠; troupe leader) – unheard of for a woman at that time. She died in 1870 at the age of 22, and the festival is held in her honour.

Stockbreeder's Ssireum (5)After fighting our way through crowd of people watching pungmul nori (풍물놀이; traditional music and dance), we made a beeline for the Ssireum (씨름) competition (something that I’d never seen, and was quite interested in). Ssireum is traditional Korean wrestling, with two opponents in a sand ring grappling via a fabric belt tied around the waist and thigh. A bout is won by forcing an opponent to the ground, which often makes for acrobatic throws and impressive feats of strength. As it turned out, we were watching the local stockbreeders – traditionally, Ssireum was practised mainly by farmers (plentiful in Korea’s agricultural society) and the prize for winning a contest was an ox.

Stockbreeder's Ssireum (1)Stockbreeder's Ssireum (2)Stockbreeder's Ssireum (3)

Anseong deolmiThe festival site contained the usual assortment of food stalls, local produce and traditional craft stalls, as well as several highly precarious bridges over the river which would never pass health and safety regulations back home. We wandered for a little while before settling down on the edge of a performance square to watch some deolmi (덜미; puppetry), predictably surrounded by children. Like the mask dances of Andong, deolmi satirises the ruling classes and religious orders and thus provides much relief and hilarity for the peasant farmers. We were possibly watching a shortened version as I didn’t see any monks, but considering the lack of high-tech gadgetry and subtitles it was quite entertaining.

Stockbreeder's Ssireum (4)Our next encounter was with a group of clown-esque students, who seamlessly blended traditional and modern influences to create a thoroughly confusing and chaotic atmosphere. After walking in a circle banging gongs and drums, some members sat down whilst others cavorted in the centre. I wasn’t quite sure if it was a spontaneous gathering or if it had required weeks of careful choreography and planning.

Anseong jultagiJust before nightfall, we came across a jultagi (줄타기; tightrope walking) performance that had been set up next to the puppet area. A tightrope walker, balanced by a fan, would go out onto the rope and perform some tricks (generally walking, kneeling or sitting astride) while exchanging witticisms with another performer on the ground. Most of the banter went over our heads, but we did get to see Korea’s top jultagi expert do a few spins, jumps and possibly painful drops-to-sitting-astride.

Anseong court musicFinally, with night upon us, we stopped to see a performance of drumming intended more for the noble courts than for the village squares. Surprisingly young women played a multitude of drums in a very soft and highly choreographed rhythm to give an almost relaxing impression. A traditional wedding dance followed, which we didn’t have time to stay for, but as we made our way out we caught from afar the climax of the international dance showcase – performers from all the nationalities involved doing a kind of global square dance with one person from each country in each group.