The Lunar New Year isn’t just another excuse to party or get drunk like its Western counterpart – all around the world, those who follow the lunisolar calendar, particularly the Chinese, see the advent of the new year as a celebration of renewal, ridding oneself of misfortunes that have unfolded in the previous year in favor of a clean slate. The festival lasts 15 days, and invariably around regional Chinese communities, involve large family reunions, visits to the temple, specific foods and symbolic traditions that bless one another: red packets to ward off aging, lion dances that storm through households or public spaces to usher in the new year and evict bad spirits; firecrackers, which are lit to scare away evil spirits.
At the heart of a tradition is community. In North America, Chinese communities fluctuate from state to state and country to country, and this fluctuation, inevitably tied to history, is evident in the way they celebrate the Lunar New Year. The year of the Horse begins on January 31st of 2014. What this means means very different things to different people, the large traditions, manifested across the world by the Chinese community, stay the same – in varying degrees. Read on, to see how it’s done in the five best places to celebrate Chinese New Year in North America.
The second largest Chinatown in the United States also sees a remarkable parade with a 100-foot-long dancing dragon, floats, marching bands and lions streaming through its streets. Outside of this exorbitant highlight, Chicago’s Chinatown provides many venues to learn more about Chinese American culture – the Chinese-American Museum of Chicago often hosts shows, concerts and exhibits to celebrate the lunar new year. Visitors strolling around should take some time to walk around Ping Tom Park, a tranquil 12-acre park along the Chicago River (accessible by water taxi) with pavilions inspired by old world Chinese walled gardens. The Chinatown is also home to the best East-Asian cuisine in town, reflective of a diverse mix of not just regional Chinese but Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese and Thai food.
The city of Toronto is known for its great diversity and cultural pockets, so it’s no surprise that during the Lunar New Year sprinkles of light and celebrations seem to pop up all over the city. Citizens crowd Spadina Street downtown, where the main drag of Chinatown turns into a public marketplace filled with dancing lions, festive streamers and lights, and restaurants packed with happy diners. Down south, towards the water, the Harbourfront Centre throws programs on a near-daily basis during the 15 day festival, including workshops, food festivals (don’t miss out on Dumpling Festival, a delectable educational experience for your tastebuds), performances, and the Lantern Palaces, a dizzying array of life-sized lantern horses trotting around lantern interpretations of historic Asian palaces. North of the metro downtown, a special acrobatic carnival runs regular performances at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts; large groups of people gather in the Chinese malls around Scarborough, Richmond Hill, and Markham, all areas densely populated with ethnic Mandarin speakers, to shop, dine and watch the celebrations.
Chinese New Year, as everyone knows, isn’t just a day, it’s a festival. It’s an event. It’s several events. It’s a nuanced tradition filled with specific customs that can’t just be tied down to a parade and a nap after dim sum. In a city where its inhabitants don’t choose between going big and going home, since their home is already inherently big, let’s just say that their Chinese New Year festivities are decidedly massive compared to other cities. It begins with Columbus Square filled with flowers at the beginning of the festivities, where vendors hawk seasonal blooms, arts and crafts and novelty toys. This fun and festive attraction is a tame open for what’s about to happen. Days later, 600,000 firecrackers are set off in the streets, beckoning dancers and drummers glitzy costumes and masks through the streets in during the Firecracker Ceremony and Cultural Festival that begins at Sara D. Roosevelt Park to kick off the New Year. Several days later is the Chinatown Lunar New Year Parade and Festival, which features decorated floats, more costumes, community members and adorable children in those costumes, marching bands and more dancing.
Chinese immigration to Vancouver came in waves: first in 1858 during the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush, and then a few years later many Chinese from the Taishan region were commissioned to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. From then, a steady stream of ethnic Chinese has been poured into Gum Shan, the Gold Mountains – speakers of Mandarin, Shanghainese, Taiwanese. Now an estimated over 17% of the population, approximately 2.5 million people, are ethnic Chinese – the largest largest proportion of Chinese in North America. This makes the Lunar New Year celebrations pretty sweet. Tens of thousands of people crowd the perimeter of Chinatown, awaiting the 3,000 performers including 50 lion dance teams, Vancouver Police Department Motorcycle Drill Teams, marching bands and more. After the parade, visitors can head to the Vancouver Chinatown Spring Festival & Cultural Fair at Sun Yat-sen Plaza, before going to dinner at any of the authentic regional-specific Chinese restaurants in the city. There’s a high concentration of them in Chinatown, but they can be found pretty much all over. And Vancouver isn’t even Richmond, where the percentage of ethnic Chinese clock in at a whopping 60% – there are acrobatic, music, and dance performances and the Flower & Gift Fair at Aberdeen Centre, dragon dances through the Yauhan Centre, open markets and other celebrations.
Tracing a long legacy that dates back to the 1860s, the Chinese New Year Parade is a cultural institution in San Francisco. Since the California Gold Rush, the city has been home to a strong population of Chinese, and the cultures and traditions have weaved themselves suitably into the fibres, and San Francisco’s Chinatown currently stands as the largest of its kind outside of Asia. The seven blocks south of Broadway and Kearny streets slowly begin to turn red around January with lanterns, storefront decorations and lights. On the evening of the parade, lion dancers stream into the streets beating their drums and shaking their tail feathers, followed by a host of floats and marching bands. San Franciscans and tourists, almost a million people strong, swarm the streets to watch the parade march on, before oozing through the crowds to try to get a table at any of the surrounding Chinese restaurants in this huge and colorful area. Before long, the sky turns dark and the streets are lit with the lanterns and shimmer coming off the parade. Don’t miss the highlight of the show, the Santa of this parade: a 268-foot long golden dragon hoisted by a team of 100 martial artists.