Into Manchester's famous Chinatown for the New Years celebrations. Its the biggest Chinatown outside of London and dominated by a particularly colourful and ornate forty-foot high arch, which makes it all the more embarrassing that I can never quite locate it and always end up scratching my head slightly nervously in the shady backstreets behind Chorlton Street National Express Station. My excuse is that Manchester's Chinatown is still, after the best part of 20 years, somehow mixed up in my head with Newcastle's Chinatown, and Newcastle's Chinatown circa 1986 at that, with the result that I'm on some semiconscious level attempting to navigate my way to it using the great hulking bank of the Gallowgate terrace as a compass point.
Frankie, being a born and bred Mancunian, suffers from no such existential neuroses, so leads our five-strong party out of Piccadilly, straight down Canal Street, around the side of the Town Hall, and into a happily mingling crowd made up of maybe 400 Chinese people, outnumbered and towered over by approximately 25000 of the white middle-class folk from the southern suburbs who, having apparently grown impatient at the City Council's reluctance to close the roads and institute an annual subsidised jamboree exclusively for a particular brand of Guardian reader, have simply taken over someone else's New Year and claimed it for themselves.
Still, as mass, brazen acts of cultural appropriation go, it's a convivial affair. No sooner have we found our bearings (well, everyone else has; I'm still looking around for Greys Monument and wondering what time I have to get back for my paper-round) than we are somehow at the very front of the throng being entertained by the dance to the drumbeat of a fifty-foot long dragon. As if the afternoon couldn't get any more exciting, Frankie is handed by a smiling Chinese girl a bag containing fortune cookies, and later on he is regaled with a bright blue balloon emblazoned with the logo of the Lebara mobile phone company. In between he scours the stalls with expert eyes, blowing four weeks of pocket money on assorted tasteful tat- a paper dragon, a box of paper firecrackers, and (his perennial Chinese New Year favourite) a 'New Year Snake' taking the form of a scrawny length of colourfully striped nylon with plastic googly eyes on, attached at one end to a wobbly stick. The rather unsavoury bloke selling them from under a giant umbrella (who is also about as Chinese as me as well, by the way) is doing a roaring trade, and we briefly consider coming back next year and undercutting him via a rival operation, before remembering that we are unmistakeably Guardian readers from the southern suburbs, and would undoubtedly get our heads kicked in by representatives of the Moss Side and District Ersatz Oriental Celebratory Ornament Traders Society as soon as we could shout 'Get Your New Years Snakes Here, Now- £1.50 Your New Years Snakes Now! Three for a fiver your New Years Snakes now Haway!'. Actually I think I might be quite good, I might give it a go and damn the consequences.
It's not all blokes with tattoos and fascinating criminal records relieving small boys of their pocket money in return for tattered remnants of old curtains, though. There are also stalls with actual Chinese people selling trays of chicken fried rice at £4 (a snip!) and Ho's Chinese Bakery, where the cognoscenti (and I am counting myself in the cognoscenti here, as I used to come here on my lunchour from the flangedesk) are queuing into the street to get their hands on pork-filled buns, plastic cups filled with boiling chicken and mushroom soup, and tiny frankfurters in even tinier bread rolls.
We all have at least one of each of the above, and feeling for some reason like a long sit down might be in order, wander into the Art Gallery, where we find ourselves- for the second time in the day- in the front row as a free and frankly bizarre spectacle ensues. This time the dragon is merely six foot long, but makes up in energy what he lacks in length and runs a merry dance around a bloke encased in a Frank Sidebottom-esque papier-mache head, who appears to be attempting to placate the beast using nothing more than an outsize table-tennis racket. The fight (because I think it is a fight, albeit a stylised and actually rather camp one, with just as many sequins as a bullfight but without the outlandish machismo and the gruesome cutting off of live ears) ends with the two-man dragon leaping skywards and grasping in its teeth a whole raw cabbage suspended from the ceiling with string, before spitting it out over the spellbound children sitting cross-legged in the front rows.
After all this we have hardly got energy left for the teatime firework display finale, but Charlotte, who has been away on an important errand involving a homemade cottage pie, is joining us on the train so we stick it out- and are rewarded with thirty minutes of spectacular ear-splitting drama, which would have been even more dramatic if we could have seen it directly, instead of reflected in the window of a nine-storey street corner towerblock, our day-long knack for being in the right place at the right time having deserted us at the death.
On the way home, there is more bad luck, as- on a train packed with New Year Revellers and United fans returning from the routine 2-0 despatch of an average Everton outfit- Frankie somehow manages to lose his treasured 'New Year Snake'. None of which was predicted in the free fortune cookies, but he is too tired to care, and so are we. Next year we'll be back, and you never know, I might even find the arch without having to cut through Fenwicks and wander subconsciously along Northumberland Street in a pair of pinstripe drainpipe-cut jeans bought from Geordie Jeans on Clayton Street with my birthday money. Happy New Year one and all.