The legend of a beast called Nian, or year, attacking villagers during this time of the year dates back thousands of years
Feb 8, 2021 at 4:55 AM in Explore
Part Four: Honoring Asian Americans
As part of our ongoing series that celebrates the diversity across America and beyond within our Discovery Map destinations, it seems appropriate to salute Asian people at this time. The Chinese New Year is Friday, February 12 this year and we are smack dab in the period of the new moon, which this year begins January 21 and ends February 20. Also called the Lunar New Year, this period marks the first moon of the lunisolar calendars, which are regulated by the cycles of the moon and sun.
Not all Asian people are Chinese, although a good number of them are, which partly explains why Chinese New Year is a big deal to many. Other countries also celebrate the Chinese New Year, including Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea and the Philippines. And you don’t have to be of Asian origin to embrace this holiday time or to appreciate the Asian-influenced food, art and cultural offerings that so many of us enjoy throughout the year.
Celebrated in Chinatowns, Asian homes and Chinese restaurants and cultural centers across the world, the Chinese New Year is looking a
little different this year due to COVID. But you can still make it festive, even if it just means wearing red, lighting extra candles in your home and cooking up or ordering Chinese food. (If you’re anything like the Map Geek, you don’t miss an opportunity to celebrate a holiday; in fact, most days are a gastronomic celebration in my world, which is definitely one way to live well through this pandemic.)
Let’s step back a bit and look at the meaning behind Chinese New Year. The legend of a beast called Nian, or year, attacking villagers during this time of the year dates back thousands of years. Supposedly terrified of noise and bright lights, villagers began to bang drums (or even just pots and pans) and light lots of lanterns to scare it away. This evolved into celebrations where firecrackers, fireworks, all sorts of lanterns and a cacophony of sounds took centerstage during these festivities. The color red also plays a prominent part of warding off the monster, which is why you see riots of this color in Chinese New Year decorations and on people commemorating this holiday. (To attract good luck, it’s best to wear red throughout this time and also important to avoid wearing white or black, since those colors are most associated with mourning.)
Yet Chinese New Year is a time when people honor those that have passed. It’s a big family time in general and that – as in many cultures
– involves all kinds of gathering and feasting. (This year there will surely be lots of the latter but perhaps less of the former.) Young people receive money in bright red envelopes and the Map Geek would bet that some adults do, too. Dragons, symbols of good fortune, often serve as the main attraction in so many of the processions and dances that take place throughout the Chinese New Year.
Due to the pandemic, many of the big events have been cancelled, others are taking a wait-and-see approach, so check local calendar listings just before February 12 to see what is to take place within your community. In any event, you can still count on colorful displays within Chinatowns across the United States and enjoy popping into shops and maybe sitting down to an exotic feast in the many wonderful Asian-owned establishments throughout the country. (This year is the year of the ox, so perhaps a bowl of oxtail soup is in order whether you find it in a restaurant or boil it up at home.)
When on the Big Island in Hawaii, you’ll likely find your way to Honolulu, a vibrant city that boasts one of the biggest and brightest Chinatowns in the world. During the nineteenth century, Chinese laborers were imported to work on the sugar plantations, so the Chinese-American roots here run deep. Within the Chinese Historic District, a neighborhood of Honolulu, the Chinese American community has been frequenting the many purveyors of Asian goods here for generations. The outdoor markets flush with fresh meats, fish, seafood and produce will transport you to far-flung lands. Visitors and locals alike delight in the Chinese bakeries, street-side vendors that sell everything from fresh-squeezed juices to yummy noodle dishes and other kinds of food and gift carts along with stores that showcase a variety of arts and crafts, including cloisonné objects, hand carved knick knacks, woodblock prints, jade jewelry and more from all over the Pacific. There’s something for every budget. The Map Geek thinks that the Chinese herbalists and traditional flower shops are among the most fun! Best of all, this area has evolved into a dynamic arts scene found within the galleries, studios, restaurants, bars and co-working spaces in a section of Chinatown known as The Arts District. The historic Hawaii Theater, an iconic landmark, opened here in 1922 with vaudeville acts and treasures from the silent screen. Today it’s a must-see and once COVID is behind us, it will once again become an important cultural hub in the area. (In the meantime, they are offering all kinds of cool livestream performances.)
Over on the mainland, the largest Asian populations may be found on the west coast. Generations of Asian immigrants have made many of our West Coast cities the exciting and ethnically diverse destinations that us travelers appreciate so much. San Francisco is especially known for its large Asian community and its Chinatown but down in our Discovery Map destination of Santa Monica, a city within Los Angeles County, Asian influences make up the fabric of countless aspects of life. From architecture to museums to monuments to food and more, influences from China, Japan, Korea and other Far East lands reign supreme. Check out this story from Discover Los Angeles to read about some of them and you’ll likely integrate a few of their recommendations when planning your next trip to southern California.
Way up in the Pacific Northwest, in Tacoma, Washington to be exact, you’ll find an abundance of influences from Japan and other parts of the Pacific. Check out the Asia Pacific Cultural Center to find out about exhibitions, programs and events featuring artists that express themselves in a variety of forms from sculpture to printmaking to film and more. They even have a Samoa Cultural Day! This year it was live on Facebook although you can bet it – along with many other joyful celebrations – will be back in full up-close and personal splendor once the pandemic is behind us.
Have you ever heard of sumi? Maybe not. But you have most likely heard of ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging. Sumi refers to ink painting, another particularly Nippon form of expression. You can learn about sumi, ikebana and also shodo, or calligraphy, at Puget Sound Artists, a group founded in Tacoma in 1985. They, too, host many extraordinary programs that will encourage your creative juices to flow.
As we ponder our plans for the Chinese New Year or simply just pay homage to our Asian friends – including those of Asian descent – it’s important to realize that Asian influences abound in and outside of the United States and most certainly within our many Discovery Map destinations from coast to coast. Whether it’s a happening fusion restaurant in Princeton, New Jersey, such as Roots where you can enjoy delicious Dim Sum (steamed dumplings and other tasty small dishes) or at an emporium of Asian goods in Providence, Rhode Island, such as the Good Fortune Supermarket where you can shop online (thankfully with pictures!), the world of Asian influences is your oyster. It’s up to you to find the pearls.
If you dig deep enough, you’ll find some especially lustrous ones as in the case of within the history of Savannah, Georgia where one of its biggest ethnic groups is the Chinese. Some of the first Chinese settlers fled to Georgia after having experienced discrimination and racism in San Francisco. Read about this fascinating aspect of the history of Savannah here. There’s not a Chinatown in Savannah because Chung Ta-Ping, one of the first to arrive in this southern city, felt that it was best to integrate within the community rather than creating a separate district. There will undoubtedly be Chinese New Year celebrations in Savannah and on Tybee Island though, colorful interpretations of their heritage that have been played out for years.
Whatever you do, wherever you go, Map Geek wishes you a dragon’s lair of luck this year and may you feel as strong as an ox in all your endeavors.
Be sure to read the previous posts in this series that celebrates Diversity in Discovery Map Destinations in Part One: Honoring African Americans; Part Two: Honoring Native Americans and Part Three: Honoring Hispanic Americans.