Chinese New Year 2023

It`s  Chinese New Year today -  22nd January 2023. And can I say in Cantonese "Gong hei fat choy"?  It's the common way to say "Happy New Year" and the Cantonese words literally mean "Wishing you happiness and prosperity".

Chinese New Year 2023 is a Year of the Rabbit. Chinese New Year has a different date every year - so, for example, Chinese New Year 2022 fell on 1st February.  This is because it is based on the lunisolar calendar and explains why it`s sometimes called Lunar New Year.  Each year it will fall between 21st January and 20th February coinciding with the relevant year`s lunar cycle.

Each year Chinese New Year is represented by one of 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac including the Rooster, Snake and Dragon among others. The Chinese zodiac has a 12 year cycle so the previous Years of the Rabbit were 2011, 1999 and 1987.

Each animal is also assigned an element - metal, earth, wood, water and fire.  The 2023 Year of the Rabbit  will be a Water Rabbit and is predicted to be a year of hope.  The sign of the Rabbit is a symbol of longevity, peace and prosperity in Chinese culture.

Last year I was commissioned by China West Midlands to stage a play at Blue Orange Theatre in Birmingham to celebrate Chinese New Year.  The play, "The Chinese Labour Corps", was the first in a trilogy of plays for China West Midlands on the theme of home from British and Chinese socio-economic perspectives.  The play ran for a week and was funded by Arts Council England.  The play was part of Chinese New Year 2022 in Birmingham and featured a cast of actors and director  of Chinese heritage.

China West Midlands wanted 3 plays set in 3 different periods of history beginning with the Chinese Labour Corps in World War One.  The second play is set in the 1940/50s and the third play is set in contemporary times.  I set about it by basing the story on  a remarkable Wolverhampton woman called Emma Sproson who was a suffragette, politician and women`s rights activist who became Wolverhampton`s first female councillor, earning herself the nickname "Red Emma" after she marked her victory by waving a red flag from the balcony of Wolverhampton Town Hall.  I asked myself the great "What If" - what if Red Emma became a nurse and served on the Western front during World War One and came into contact with the Chinese Labour Corps?

To celebrate Chinese New Year for China West Midlands the  play dealt with notions of time and place, family and sacrifice, identity and home from British and Chinese perspectives.  In the furnace of the greatest conflict of humanity the world had ever seen a Wolverhampton former suffragette, based on Red Emma, becomes a nurse and falls in love with a member of the Chinese Labour Corps. 

On the Western Front a suffragette and nurse from Wolverhampton, based on Red Emma, and a Chinese labourer chose to open their hearts and fall in love.  Nobody chooses their DNA but we can choose to love.  Some people choose to hate but there is too much hatred in the world.  Love really does conquor all.  What this poor, battered little planet needs is a surfeit of love.  No more hate.  Nobody knows what the future will bring but we can choose to love.

The play was a success and Ian was given the green light by China West Midlands to  write the second play based on Chinese migration to British in the 1940s/50s.  The work in progress was featured at 4 festivals in 2022 including a sold out performance in Birmingham on the eve of the Commonwealth Games.  Again, the cast featured actors of Chinese heritage and was supported by Chinese community groups across the area.  Ian`s second play is now with Arts Council England and Blue Orange Theatre awaiting a decision on funding.

It all comes back to Wolverhampton.  The commission from China West Midlands came about because of a performance I did in the Arena Theatre at the Wolverhampton Literature Festival with poetry collective Poets Against Racism.  One of the poems was called "The Chinese Labour Corps" for Chinese New Year and it was featured on YouTube.  There were further performances of it at the Nottingham Poetry Festival, Blast Festival, Sutton Coldfield Expo and the  Rock the Beacon Festival.  The rest, as they say, is history.

The Chinese Labour Corps

I am far from China, I am afraid:
All of my dreams have been battered and torn.
Done my duty and the game I have played,
Given a number and my pigtail shorn.
We now fly to France like a flock of geese
And serve - picking up the pieces to make peace.

We are the Chinese Labour Corps!
Served Great Britain in the Great War!
We`ve got soul, but we`re not soldiers,
The weight in our hearts like boulders.
Men in uniform, their fate sealed,
Poppies, for them, on battlefields.

Chemical warfare - green clouds cannot mask
Shells spouting rancid waterfalls of mud.
Grisly human remains, hurled by shell blast
And raining on trenches, pouring with blood.
We are here to rebuild, hatred must cease:
Let`s now pick up the pieces to make peace.

Daily the tired soldiers loom
Across parapets to their doom;
Trudging through mud, a man-made Hell,
Brave men - bombs and bullets - they fell.
Death, on rusty barbed wire fences:
A senseless war in the trenches.

The mechanised sound of machine-gun fire:
Young men, in uniform, die like cattle;
Carnage among the Great British Empire
And mowed down by the machine gun rattle.
Jaws of Death - we civilians have come - 
And marching to the beat of our drum.

We are the Chinese Labour Corps!
Served Great Britain in the Great War!
We`ve got soul, but we`re not soldiers,
The weight in our hearts like boulders.
War and suffering must cease - 
Pick up the pieces and make peace.  

Ian Henery

Now and Next