Londnr’s Tiger Tour: In Honour of Chinese New Year

King of all beasts in China, third in the celestial race and importantly, the zodiac year of Leonardo DiCaprio, the tiger is confident; a symbol of strength, a manifestation of vitality and bravery. And 2022 happens to be the Year of the Tiger.

 

As each Chinese New Year calendar cycle is 12 years, for ‘98 babies like myself, this is the second tiger year happening since we were born. Truly seismic stuff. Amongst other things, Year of the Tiger denotes that our unlucky colour is brown and our unlucky direction is ‘South West’. What this actually means, I’m not too sure… avoid going to Clapham at all costs?

 

Year of the Tiger begins on February 1st, and is the start of weeks of Chinese New Year celebrations. London’s festivities are the largest outside of Asia, although this year they’re sadly still not going ahead full scale. People spend time with their families, have large feasts, give gifts and set off fireworks; with the fortnight of celebrations culminating with the Lantern Festival.

Chinese New Year 'Lion Dance'. On the evening of 31st January, expect to see these beasts leaping and bounding to the beat of drums

The image of a tiger that typically inhabits our brain is enhanced by the books and poems we read, the films we watch, the art we peruse. In celebration of the majestic animal, let us take an amble through London; a city which is filled with tigers.

 

Make your way first to the National Gallery, there hangs Henri Rousseau’s legendary Tiger in a Tropical Storm. Yet the animal is not portrayed as a symbol unshakable fierceness, but rather as a strategic hunter, with hypnotic yellow eyes, stalking in a mystic-sea-green post-impressionist landscape.

 

Then hop onto the nearest underground platform, Charing Cross, and you’ll find a recreation of the painting, looking like it’s doing a poo above a litter tray. Sometimes, there’s simply no accounting for taste on the artistic spectrum, but it’s educational to see the contrast.

Henri Rousseau's 'Tiger in a Tropical Storm' original
Charing Cross graffiti version

Over at the V&A museum, you’ll find an almost life-sized wooden tiger attacking a European soldier lying on his back. Tippoos tiger was made for the Tipu Sultan, ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore in South India. The tiger was part of a group of large caricature images commissioned by Tipu, showing European, often British figures, being attacked by tigers or elephants. They are thought to have expressed his hatred of the British East India company.

 

Now let’s veer away from art, and into ‘going out’. Even in this category, London can carry a tiger motif: Tiger Tiger, branded by Trip Advisor users as the ‘worst club in London’, boasts a whole host of rude staff and laughably expensive drinks – the full London experience! While in the best commercialisation of Chinese New Year that the UK has to offer, you can attend a ‘tiger painting’ Zoom class, run by the Thirsty Painters, for only £30.

'Tipu's Tiger', 1780s or 1790s, Mysore, India. Museum no 2545 (IS). © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

The famous striped beast of Londoner William Blake’s poem is a symbol of one of the most difficult questions of religion: how does God allow evil to exist? By putting the tiger in direct comparison to a lamb – ‘Did he who made the Lamb make thee?’ – it throws into question how a God could have created both a vulnerable creature like a lamb, as well as an intimidating one, like the tiger. And there is a hidden tiger mural in Finsbury that pays tribute to the animal in Blake’s best-known poem, which you can visit and stand in front of, while trying to untangle this philosophical question of epic proportions.

 

Tigers are first and foremost predators, able to rip your limbs off in a single bite. They are easily provoked and unpredictable, as British Actor Rob James-Collier said, ‘If you rile a tiger, he’s going to show his claws.’ Much like me before I’ve had a coffee in the morning. Yet despite their innately aggressive nature, as G. K. Chesterton said tigers can be seen as ‘symbols of great elegance’. Something about its power, sleekness, beauty and grace has always mesmerised us. A tiger is many things: magnificence and menace; hunter and hunted; real endangered animal and ephemeral artistic inspiration.

 
Artists Paul Skelding and Tim Sanders, together with the residents of Quaker Court created a new mural based on Blake's poem

 

Last year, the year filled with lockdown treachery and the trickiness of vaccine rollouts, was the year of the metal Ox; which is emblematic of hard work, pragmatism and perseverance. This year is the year of the water tiger; which represents strength, power and bold action. So if the Chinese zodiac signs are anything to go by, perhaps we’ll finally shake off our many shackles, or at any rate, find a way to deal with what life throws at us by being as versatile as the tiger’s varied symbolism.

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