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Lunar New Year Makes a Comeback in Chinatown

Fisayo Okare

Jan 22, 2023

A dance performance at 2023 Lunar New Year celebration in Chinatown. Photo: April Xu for Documented

For the first time since the pandemic hit, celebrations in Chinatown for the Lunar New Year felt like old times, my colleague April Xu tells me. 

April is Documented’s Chinese Community Correspondent and she has lived in New York for almost ten years. Yesterday, she attended the Firecracker Ceremony and cultural Festival in Manhattan’s Chinatown. It was the 25th edition of the event. 

A community member in Chinatown shared the same sentiment. She told April that Chinatown seemed more crowded than the previous two years. She even said she feels elected officials pay more attention to the Chinese community now, adding that former Mayor Bill De Blasio didn’t come to Chinatown for the Lunar New Year every year, but in her opinion, Mayor Eric Adams comes to Chinatown often.

Mayor Adams mentioned the mass shooting on Saturday in California, saying “All of our hearts go out to the terrible, terrible display that took place earlier. We are in prayer for those who lost their lives and those who are injured.” For the Lunar New Year event, he said he hoped that the city would continue to move forward together. “All the elected officials who represent this community, they have been a strong voice for this community. There is great hope and prosperity for Chinatown,” he said. Photo Credit: April Xu

“It was very crowded and festive,” April said of this year’s celebration. “It felt like we were back to the pre-pandemic times. I couldn’t even find a place to eat after I covered the event because there were lines in front of almost every restaurant.”

Those lines are a big deal. Local businesses in Chinatown were hit hard because of the pandemic. But this weekend, many people from other communities came to Chinatown to celebrate Lunar New Year, and some were even dressed to celebrate. One of April’s friends said she really enjoyed the atmosphere and it made her feel like “our lives are really back to normal.”

A dog dressed in festive clothing for the 25th New Year Firecracker Ceremony & Cultural Festival in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Photo Credit: April Xu

I spoke to April about what else she saw during the celebrations, her experience at this Lunar New Year, and how she missed her chance to make money on her family group chat. 

Fisayo: I’m glad you got some food to eat after standing for so long. Where did you end up eating? 

April: I went to the East Village, a Chinese restaurant there, to have lunch. But it’s funny that usually it feels so crowded in East Village, but when I went to the restaurant in the early afternoon, it was not that crowded. Even the East Village itself was not that crowded. I feel like maybe everybody just went to Chinatown.

It’s great that so many diverse communities are going to Chinatown to enjoy the food and culture, and are so supportive to the Asian Community as they celebrate the Lunar New Year this year.

It’s really great. The celebrations brought much more traffic than usual to the Chinatown area. I saw a lot of people from other communities too. All different racial groups: White, Black, Hispanic. It was really great to see everybody enjoying this event together. You could see most streets, it was probably filled with thousands of people. They had fun, watching confetti being shot in the sky, and the firecrackers too. It was a very lively atmosphere. 

Diverse groups of people were present at the event. Photo Credit: April Xu

But I kind of wish that people did not just come to Chinatown during Lunar New Year; I hope they can also come to Chinatown and the Asian community whenever they’re available because the local businesses really had a hard time during the pandemic.

I can’t help but think about how for the first time this year, the Lunar New Year is an official state holiday in California. Yet on the eve of the holiday, celebrations were cut short because of the tragic shooting. 

Yeah, it’s kind of overshadowing the important festival in the Asian community. You know, at Documented, we did a survey among Chinese immigrants last year, and the issue they are most concerned about in their communities is public safety. And you see this mass shooting happened in Monterey Park, a community in California where over 60% of its people are Asian American. It’s really sad to see a mass shooting tragedy happen again and again. There are already five mass shootings that happened in January in the U.S. It is not something that only concerns the Asian communities; it affects everybody, and it’s really sad to see. 

For you personally, how has the celebration been for you this year compared to previous years? Do you usually celebrate it every year? 

Yeah, if I have a chance. Also because of the nature of my job, every Lunar New Year, I go to cover this event. So it’s kind of the same for me. This year, I actually bought some Lunar New Year decorations for my apartment. This year I just really felt I wanted to celebrate it, so I just bought some items to decorate the apartment and cooked some Chinese dishes and made dumplings.

Is the New Year such that you call your family and exchange greetings, and did you do that this year? 

I called my dad during the Lunar New Year eve in China, which was like one day ahead of us because of the timezone. Also, sending people red envelopes containing cash is a tradition in the Chinese Lunar New Year. So in recent years, it’s been popular to send digital red envelopes on WeChat — just a small amount of money contained in that digital red envelope. So if you have a group chat with your family members, you just send one, and then they can grab the red envelope digitally, and they will get a random amount of money from it. It’s a very small amount. It’s just for fun.

Nice. Did you do any of those today? 

Because there’s a time difference between the U.S. and China, when they sent the red envelope, I was already asleep. And because there’s a limited number of people that can grab it — depending on the number of people the person who is sending it, selected — when I woke up, the envelope was already gone. So I missed a chance to become a billionaire, you know. 

😂Indeed. 

I believe many Chinese families do that just for fun. It’s just a little money in that red envelope and a set number of people just get like 50 cents each or $1. Just a random number.

Traditionally, how did that work when people use a physical red envelope?

Usually it’s a one person to one person thing. For example, if I want to give you the envelope, I just put some money in the red envelope and give it to you. Nobody will compete with you. As a younger person growing up in China, when I’m lucky enough to wake up early enough, I sometimes can get some from my elder cousins or uncles or parents. Usually, the red envelope, the older people give it to the younger people, not the younger people giving it to the older people. But in the family group chat, anybody can grab it.

This summary was featured in Documented’s Early Arrival newsletter. You can subscribe to receive it in your inbox three times per week here.

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Fisayo Okare

Fisayo writes Documented’s "Early Arrival" newsletter and "Our City" column. She is an MSc. graduate of Columbia Journalism School, New York, and earned her BSc. degree in Mass Comm. from Pan-Atlantic University, Lagos.

@fisvyo

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