Orient express: Shoppers stock up to celebrate the Year of the Rabbit in Glasgow

SCENES from a Chinese supermarket: a young woman in a Rolling Stones T-shirt examines a glossy maroon-black pig's liver held up for her scrutiny by a portly, yellow-gloved butcher called Zhang Bofeng.

• One youngster is beguiled by a lantern as her parents prepare to fill their trolley Photograph: Robert Perry

A little girl with a black bob tugs at her mother's sleeve and points up at a golden rabbit full of candied fruit. In a huge blue tank at the back of the store, the dull, sullen shapes of live eels writhe and flex, presumably unaware that they are shortly to be killed, smoked and served in black bean sauce as part of the evening's lunar New Year celebrations. Outside, dreich and drookit Glasgow goes on much as before, but SeeWoo - Scotland's largest oriental food store - is 60,000 square feet that will be forever China.

More than one sixth of the world's population celebrate the lunar New Year, yet in Scotland, home to more than an estimated 20,000 Chinese people - around half of whom are thought to live in Glasgow - the festival is somewhat obscure. It is very likely that this will change in years to come, as China continues to grow in reach, influence and prosperity. In the meantime, however, spending 2 February with members of Scotland's Chinese community as they prepare for the Year of the Rabbit's arrival at midnight is a lesson in just how foreign your home town can seem if you pass through the right set of doors.

SeeWoo is on Saracen Street in Possilpark in the north of the city, an area more usually associated with poverty and drug use than multiculturalism. Yet here it is. Customers entering the store rub the belly of a large copper-coloured Buddha as they pass. Inside, paper lanterns hang from harsh lights and the air smells of ginger, aniseed and fish.

The public address system plays what sounds like Take That's Back For Good performed on dulcimer and lute. Everyone is speaking Chinese. As most of Scotland's Chinese immigrants are from Hong Kong, Cantonese is the majority language; however, with growing numbers now able to afford to travel from mainland China, Mandarin is heard increasingly in Glasgow. In SeeWoo, a heavily accented voice calls out "Happy New Year to you!" to the tune of Happy Birthday, but during the six hours I spend in the store, an English phrase is a rarity.

For me, the result is confusion. For my young sons, it may come to make perfect sense. Increasing numbers of Scottish schools are offering classes in Mandarin to pupils, reflecting a growing belief among teachers, young people and their parents that the future is Chinese. The Glasgow business China Club HQ, which provides an online programme to teach language and culture, has been employed by more than 500 schools across Scotland over the past 12 months.

Spending six hours in any supermarket would be disorientating. In SeeWoo, for a westerner, it's even more so. Not unpleasant, though. I could pass entire days browsing through the 10,000 items on display, including brittle-looking dried swim bladders and glutinous, translucent jellyfish heads.

The Victorian thinker John Ruskin, who encouraged his art students to notice the beauty of parsley hanging over the edge of a basket in the local market, might have enjoyed seeing the stacked bundles of razor clams from which white flesh oozes like ripe cheese. Personally, I find a stirring staccato poetry in the names of the green vegetables - pak choi, ong choi, kai-lan, choi sum - and am interested to learn that the Chinese name for Irn-Bru is "Tit Yan" or "Iron Man". Lovers of double-entendres might prefer to sample some Cock-branded anchovies washed down with a refreshing can of the sports drink Pocari Sweat.

It is a tradition on Chinese New Year's Eve for people to come together and share a large meal. In China it is a sort of reunion dinner; it is expected that scattered family members will travel significant distances to attend. In Scotland, the meal is often more of an ex-pat get together. Either way, it will involve a variety of meat and vegetable dishes served all at once rather than in courses. Unlike Hogmanay, alcohol is not the focus and often does not figure at all. The centrepiece is generally seafood; the pronunciation of the word "fish" is similar to that of "surplus" and eating it is thus considered a way of ensuring that the year ahead will be bountiful.

Every day at 5am, Simon Chan, the 58-year-old head fishmonger in SeeWoo, travels to Blochairn wholesale market and purchases some of the produce he will sell that day. Much of SeeWoo's fish and shellfish is sold live, a reflection of the Chinese desire for the freshest meat possible.

Customers point out what they would like, and Chan delves into the tank with a large net, bringing out langoustines, lobsters and eels. There is something of the fairground win-a-goldfish about it, especially as the creatures are placed, still living, into clear plastic bags before being handed over. Children press palms and noses against the glass, rapt as turbot flap and glide their last hours away.

Standing in an aisle beside a vest freezer full of dumplings, a man takes out his iPhone to show me photographs of what he, his wife and daughter ate for their New Year dinner last time: "Seabass, hot pot, fish balls, some noodle, pak choi, clementines, chicken feet, pig's ear ..." Usually, says his wife Catherine, who is originally from Taiwan, they serve ten dishes as that is considered a perfect number. The clementines are thought to be lucky as their name in Chinese - "tai kut" - is a homophone for good fortune.

Many of the goods sold today, SeeWoo's busiest day of the year, will be as a result of superstitious associations. A young man walking around with a young peach tree, pink blossoms blooming from its deep-red branches, explains: "It's to bring a partner or sex or something like that." Meanwhile, over on the meat counter they are doing a roaring trade in pig's tongue, all dimpled flesh and bloody root, which is known as "tai lai", a homophone for good wealth. Roast chicken and duck are cooked and sold with head and tail intact, symbolising the ending of one year and the beginning of the next.

There is a strong and attractive sense in SeeWoo of the modern world of global communications and supermarket logistics existing side-by-side with ancient beliefs. A young Malaysian woman with a Louis Vuitton bag taps the screen of her mobile phone and calls up an image of Fu Xing, the god of happiness and wealth. Large statues of Fu Xing and other deities are on sale in SeeWoo, as are bundles of the fake banknotes marked "Heaven" and "Hell" which are burned at traditional Chinese funerals to pay for goods in the afterlife.

At New Year, giving gifts of cash - real cash - is part of the tradition. James Woolford, 32, opens his jacket to show me the traditional red envelopes containing money, which he and his wife Patsy Chan, 31, will give to members of the family that evening. James and Patsy married recently and live in New York but have returned to Glasgow to visit her family. It is, jokes James, one of the drawbacks of getting hitched that you have to start handing out cash; children and elderly relatives receive the envelopes; newlyweds don't. "That's why you've got to produce kids quickly. That way you can start making back the money you're giving out."

Fong Liu, a young woman from the city of Suzhou in the Jiangsu province, has bought roast duck and nian gao, a sticky cake eaten at New Year, as well as decorations for "China Week" at Hillhead High, the school in the west end of Glasgow where she teaches a class in Mandarin.

Though now studying and working as a teacher, Liu also performs as a singer and is very well known in her native country. She moved to Glasgow in 2007 with her husband, who is British. They met for the first time in the valley of Snow Mountain in Yunnan province, an area Liu was exploring in order to escape the Sars outbreak in her home city. She was on horseback and he had just climbed down from Mount Everest. They now have a two-and-a-half year old boy who speaks English and Mandarin. It's a proper old-fashioned romance. The supermarket must be full of stories like that.

"Chinese New Year is something to look forward to," Liu explains. "It cheers you up. Like you need Christmas, we need Chinese New Year." For ex-pats, she explains, it is a way of reflecting upon and communing with the distant homeland. As another Chinese woman explains to me, this can give the New Year celebration a slightly bittersweet tang, an almost enjoyable melancholy of the sort that Scots often experience on 31 December, though the Chinese, to their credit, attain that emotional state without the aid of bevvy, Phil or Aly.

The atmosphere in the supermarket, as evening approaches, is busy, cheerful and expectant. Those who have time to stop and chat explain that they are counting on the Year of the Rabbit to be a more peaceful and economically stable period following the turbulent Year of the Tiger. More romantic, too? "Hopefully!" chorus Shirley Chan and Boonchai Ong, two students filling a trolley with food to cook for friends.

For SeeWoo's regular customers, the festive pleasures are about to begin. For me, a stranger, the store itself is pleasurably strange. On the way out, I rub the Buddha's belly and make a silent New Year's resolution to return.