Welcoming the year of the dragon
Chinese New Year is celebrated throughout the month
As a boy growing up in the Hubei province of China, Ken Wang's favorite parts of the Chinese New Year were delicious balls made from rice and meat and the candy he'd get going door-to-door in his neighborhood.
Now grown up and far from home, Wang, a student at Stanford University, places more value in the holiday's ability to bring families together than the free food and candy it offers.
"It's a really great opportunity to enjoy good food, shows and time together with your family," said Wang, president of the Association of Chinese Students and Scholars at Stanford.
While he may not be able to celebrate the holiday with his own family, Wang's organization kicks off each Chinese New Year with a huge gala that includes performances in dance, music, drama and even kung fu.
"We can't go back to China because of the school year, so we put on the show to invite Chinese students to come and celebrate it together," he said.
Wang said the Chinese New Year is the most important holiday of the year — a bit like Christmas and New Year rolled into one. Festivities for the holiday last two weeks, from the first new moon to the first full moon (from Jan. 23 to Feb. 6 this year) and are commonly marked by the giving of gifts, special foods and traditional dance and music performances.
Wang said the purpose of his organization's gala is not just to entertain but to serve as a bridge between two cultures.
"Part of our mission is to connect with American students and introduce Chinese culture to them," Wang said. "It's one of the best opportunities to fulfill that mission and promote Chinese culture."
In terms of cost, the gala is one of the larger productions the student organization puts on each year, but Wang said there's no question that it draws the most people.
This year 1,700 people came to the association's gala on Jan. 22 at Stanford's Memorial Auditorium, nearing the building's total capacity.
For Vicki Ching, owner of Ming's restaurant in Palo Alto, the holiday season is easily the year's busiest. Ming's hosts dragon and lion dances for its Chinese New Year Celebration. The dances each feature a number of dancers hidden beneath a long costume with an ornate head at its front. Ching said the dances are considered signs of celebration, but they can also signify driving away evil spirits.
"It's a real community thing," Ching said. "There are many, many Chinese people moving into Palo Alto, and I like them to join us for the celebration."
Palo Alto's Asian population increased 73 percent between 2000 and 2010, from 10,090 to 17,461. That growth sent Palo Alto's Asian population from 17.2 percent to 27.1 percent of the city's total residents, according to 2010 census data.
"Most of Chinese people move here for the excellent school system, so they all have kids," she said. "I'm proud that we can have this cultural event every year — it's something they can remember when they grow up."
On Jan. 21 the Nature Gallery in Town & Country Village held a Chinese New Years event hosted by Palo Alto Mayor Yiaway Yeh, during which children decorated lanterns and played games. Yeh is Palo Alto's first Chinese-American mayor.
Carolyn Digovich, who promoted the event at the Nature Gallery, said it was a good experience for children from all backgrounds.
"It's valuable to have a living cultural experience about somebody else's culture," she said. "It stays with them in a different way and engenders curiosity."
Ann Woo, director of Chinese Performing Arts of America, also said that the children are central to the holiday's significance.
"Chinese New Year is the happiest time of the year for Chinese children," said Woo, whose organization performed traditional Chinese dance and music at the recent Stanford gala. "The dances performed by our kids are meant to show their happiness."
Woo said her organization spends about a third of its annual resources on full-scale productions and smaller performances around the Bay Area celebrating the Chinese New Year. This year, her organization will perform at six locations from San Jose to San Francisco.
The mission of Chinese Performing Arts of America is to introduce Chinese culture to the mainstream, and Chinese New Year celebrations, galas and performances are ideal outlets for doing so, Woo said.
"It's the busiest time of the year for us," she said. "The Lunar New Year celebration is the most important and joyous celebration of Chinese culture."
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