January 23 was the first day of the Chinese New Year. 2012 is the Year of the Dragon.

I had never celebrated the Chinese New Year before. But it seems to be a big deal in South Africa and I’m all about new beginnings these days. So I decided to attend my first-ever Chinese New Year celebration at the Nan Hua Buddhist Temple in Bronkhorstspriut, a small town about an hour northeast of Joburg.

The Nan Hua Buddhist Temple in Bronkhorstspruit. I dare you to say that three-times-fast.

According to Wikipedia, the Nan Hua Temple is the largest Buddhist temple in Africa. I believe it — the place is huge. The land belongs to the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order of Taiwan. It was donated by the Bronkhorstspruit City Council in 1992 after the Bronkhorstspruit chief executive, Dr. Hennie Senekal, visited Taiwan to promote investment opportunities in Bronkhorstspruit.

The history sounds a little odd, right? Well, so is the temple.

It looks like the temple just dropped out of the sky and landed in the middle of this rural South African field.

Clash of cultures.

I found this sign hilarious. During the time I was inside the temple grounds I saw nearly every one of these rules being broken, many times over. “No Photo’, ‘No Video’, ‘No Meat’, ‘No Picnicking’, and of course ‘Quiet Please’ were the most frequently broken rules. 

I arrived at about 10:30 with my friends Fiver and Stuart. We fought our way through the crowds and immediately encountered an impressive paper dragon procession.

I didn’t have time get my camera ready so I missed the head.

Unfortunately the performances ended just a few minutes after the paper dragon procession. Oops. Guess we should have arrived earlier. But there was still plenty to see.

The imposing temple square is surrounded by a covered walkway, which was lined with stalls selling all kinds of food and Chinese trinkets.

Delicious-looking Chinese chocolate-custard desserts. I really wanted to try one, but I waited too long and by the time I was ready it was too crowded to get anywhere close. I settled for soggy spring rolls.

Corn dogs and mysterious fried bits. Just like at the county fair back home.

Happy waving cats! I think these are actually Japanese, not Chinese. Whatever, I love them.

My favorite stalls were the ones selling assorted Asian-style deadly weapons — swords, daggers, throwing stars, etc. (Remember the sign that said ‘No Weapons’? I guess bringing weapons to a Buddhist temple is against the rules but selling weapons is okay.) These vendors also sold cheap aluminum baseball bats, designed specifically for whacking people over the head. This is South Africa, after all.

As the morning wore on, the crowds intensified.

South Africans really love the Chinese New Year.

After lunch, we broke free of the masses and walked barefoot into the indoor temple, which houses three massive Buddhas. We climbed the stairs to the top floor for a better view.

I initially did not intend to take photos inside the temple. The sign outside the door reiterates that there are no photos allowed. But apparently the Buddhists make an exception for Chinese New Year. There were dozens, if not hundreds, of people taking photos inside, even crowding right up to the offering tables and photographing people as they lit candles. The monks seemed to pay no attention. So I finally took out my camera and snapped a few shots.

I hope I can still attain Nirvana after posting this.

Outside the temple was a place where you could pay 20 rand ($2.50), write a wish on a ribbon, and hang the ribbon on an orange plastic tree. My wish is probably moot after I took photos inside the temple, but I figured it was worth a try anyway.

You’re actually supposed to tie your wish to a Chinese coin and then throw the coin onto the tree. But they ran out of coins. This nice lady pinned my wish to the tree instead.

Here’s what I wrote: ‘Before the end of 2012, I wish to feel truly happy again.’

I think I can do it. Looking at these happy cats will help.

The Nan Hua Temple, while a bit strange, is worth a visit. It’s an easy day trip from either Joburg or Pretoria. The temple also houses a huge seminary that offers meditation retreats. Check it out: http://www.nanhua.co.za/.

Read more about Chinese culture in Joburg here and here.

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