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

Arezzo Flag Wavers (2)Arezzo Flag Wavers (3)Arezzo Flag Wavers (4)

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)

Cheonggyecheon by nightEven though Christmas is a national holiday and Christians outnumber Buddhists here, everyone knows that the really big fanfare happens in the spring, to celebrate the birth of the Buddha. The entire country is decked out in lanterns for a couple of weeks, and temples all over the peninsula open their doors to worshippers and revellers (often with free tea!). Exploring Seoul by lantern-light and watching the temple parades are generally reckoned to be one of the highlights of a stay in Korea.

JogyesaWe arrived at the Jongno area (right on the parade route) just in time to hear the drums and yells of the approaching marchers. Each temple had sent a contingent of followers equipped with lanterns and floats, and for the next few hours we shouted and waved at their efforts and tried to guess at the mythological figures depicted (once we had finished scurrying around the roads trying to puzzle out the constantly-changing route, that is). The photographs below (culled from a much larger set) should give you some idea of what we were shown – if you find yourself in Korea during May, I recommend you experience it too.

Buddhist lantern (1)Buddhist lantern (2)

Buddhist lantern (3)Buddhist lantern (4)

Dragon float (4)Dragon float (3)

Dragon float (1)Dragon float (2)

Peacock float (1)Peacock float (2)

Phoenix float (1)Phoenix float (2)

Dragon lantern (1)Dragon lantern (2)

Tiger lanternSnake hood Buddhist

Buddha plus bodyguardsReclining float

All-encompassing BuddhaBuddhist crew (3)

Buddhist crew (1)Buddhist crew (2)

Elephant floatDragon riding float

Eco-floatFish float

Baseball floatAccessibility float

Jongno TowerClimbing monk

Lotus-elephant-lotus-BuddhaBuddhist triffid-lotus

Zhang Gu (Crayon Shin-chan)Mascot lantern

Buddhist road tripTank engine float

Pimped-up Buddhist monster truckBuddhacopter

Pig lantern (1)Pig lantern (2)