Happy Lunar New Year!
This special issue of Epicenter-NYC honors our Asian neighbors. What a bittersweet time for our community.
- Racism and xenophobia have been on the rise, partly thanks to a former Queens man referring to Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus.” A year out, the situation is still bleak; there has been a major spike in anti-Asian hate crimes in recent weeks.
- Asian businesses have also been suffering during Lunar New Year, a time which is usually their most profitable. The 16-day celebration commences without the usual fanfare of lion dances, family gatherings and traditional dress.
Yet these external celebrations are hardly the extent of what Lunar New Year means to the many cultures (101: It’s not just Chinese New Year) that celebrate the holiday, and opportunities still abound. If you find yourself at a loss for how to make dumplings without your mom there to show you, then hop on the Zoom celebration hosted by Flushing Town Hall. If you’ve forgotten that greeting the elderly is an important part of demonstrating filial piety, join the Korean Community Services on its rounds delivering meals to homebound seniors.
Speaking of, bridging the old and the new, don’t miss this great story from Lam Thuy Vo about Pearl River Mart and the revolution it represented in the 1970s. The beloved retailer is moving its flagship store in a few weeks. Edited excerpt:
There’s a cruel calculus forced upon small business owners: stay and potentially risk losing any savings you have left or leave. Unlike big corporations, Pearl River Mart can’t afford to wait and hope for the best legislative outcome.
In 1971, Ming Yi Chen opened a store with Chinese goods, partly to start a business but mostly to make a political statement to reinforce the need to embrace and learn about Chinese culture during a time when it was mostly vilified. What started as a political act and temporary place for political gatherings though, soon revealed itself as a much needed community service.
The greater mission that stores like Pearl River Mart have increasingly found during the pandemic: bringing a sense of community to multiple generations of immigrants and formulating a new identity and sense of togetherness within the Asian American diaspora.
“My experience is separate from the Chens’ experience, or from growing up in Asia. And I think so many people in the states and in Chinatown are kind of figuring out what it means to be Asian American. They are gaining their voice,” said Pearl River Mart president Joanne Kwong. “This is a beacon of hope for a better future after Covid.”
See, sometimes you have to look back in order to look forward. Scroll down for some ways to support Pearl River Mart as it enters this new chapter.
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Meanwhile, Epicenter-NYC writer Chloe Tai spoke with cultural groups throughout the five boroughs to bring you the scoop on how Lunar New Year celebrations are going down in 2021.
How to Celebrate Tết Nguyên Đán (Vietnamese Lunar New Year)
Every year, the Vietnam Heritage Center, a nonprofit that hosts classes on the Vietnamese language for students from Brooklyn to the Bronx, hosts a Lunar New Year celebration in partnership with the New York Historical Society.
Called Tết Nguyên Đán, Vietnamese Lunar New Year is celebrated with traditional dishes like bánh chưng and bánh dày, while kids play bầu cua cá cọp, a traditional Vietnamese “animal bingo” game. People also go around giving each other money in red envelopes, called bao lì xì.
This year, celebrations will be held over Zoom, and include a quiz show and a fashion contest.
“Video conferencing and even the regular telephone seem to be the best ways just to stay connected, to make sure that your family members are okay,” said Thuy Pham, executive director of the Vietnam Heritage Center. “You want to reach out to them.”
How to Celebrate Chunjie (Spring) Festival (Chinese Lunar New Year)
The United Chinese Association will be hosting a lion dance livestream, demonstrations of traditional Chinese crafts, and a New Year’s Lucky Raffle over Zoom on February 16. It services the Bensonhurst and Decker Heights community and has taught digital literacy programs to the senior citizens every Tuesday and Thursday since March of last year.
“A lot of restaurants are closed down or they have restrictions right now, so (seniors) can’t have dinners out there with their family or friends,” said Lori Huang, the outreach and health coordinator of the UCA. The group is partnering up with New Double Happiness restaurant to order Lunar New Year mini basins, better known as poon choi.
The traditional Cantonese dish is made with abalone, shrimp, dried oyster, and roast pork that people can reserve for pick-up in advance of Feb. 18 (if you are interested, call 718-232-0055).
If you find yourself wanting to watch more traditional performances, check out Flushing Town Hall’s Chinese Temple Bazaar, to be streamed via YouTube on Sunday, Feb. 14, at 2 p.m.
One of the performances is a paper-cutting demonstration featuring a woman in Queens and her mother in China.
Now more than ever, New Yorkers need to support Chinese-owned businesses, said Ya Yun Teng, community outreach and Chinese project director.
“Since the pandemic hit, Chinese neighborhoods have really suffered from discrimination, and business were suffering,” she said. “So we partnered with two chefs, who are both vendors of Queens Night Market.”
Johnson Wu of Bstro and Wanda Chiu of HK Street Food will be performing live cooking demonstrations.
Similarly, Send Chinatown Love, a nonprofit organization created when the pandemic first hit America, has created a Lunar New Year Crawl, focused on uplifting the local Chinese businesses throughout the five boroughs.
“I think the big part of why we called it a Lunar New Year crawl was because so many other cultures also celebrate (the holiday), and we don’t want to be exclusive of them. Also, Chinatown encompasses so many … different businesses,” said Louise Palmer of Send Chinatown Love. “Our goal was to try and include as many businesses as we could and as many boroughs as we could.”
How to Celebrate Seollal (Korean Lunar New Year)
“Throughout the pandemic, checking in on our community members and making sure they were well and safe were of the utmost priority,” said Monica Lee, the communications officer for Korean Community Services of Metropolitan New York, Inc. (KCS). “For many, fundraising and volunteerism actually became a new family tradition in place of large family celebrations.”
KCS has been serving the senior citizen community in Queens since 1973, and its mission has been one of bridging the cultural and language divide that people may face in trying to access community resources and opportunities, Lee said.
This year, instead of serving traditional Korean dishes at centers in Corona and Flushing, KCS created the Home-Delivered Meals Program, the only meals-on-wheels program in the city serving Korean food to homebound seniors.
Some unique traditions during Seollal include buying gifts for family members leading up to the day itself, bowing to one’s elders to receive New Year’s money, called sebaedon, and playing games like yut-nori (a strategy board game) and jegichagi (a version of hacky-sack).
No matter which culture you are a part of or what your traditions may be, Lee said, “One unifying theme is hope, family, and community. And I think that’s something beautiful that we see no matter what Asian culture you are from.”
Indeed. Now about all the ways to support Pearl River Mart:
Shop Pearl River Mart online. (We love the fun socks!)
For Lunar New Year, check out the socially distanced lion dance.
Pearl River is also trying to support fellow businesses, collaborating with several in a project called Chinatown Collection. The Instagram story on this.
Pearl River Mart also supports this nonprofit, Hearts of Dinner, which brings food to elderly Asians
Finally, we want to celebrate an Asian American who has made our vaccine-registration efforts at Epicenter much easier. Huge Ma, an Airbnb engineer, built a Twitter bot that alerts users to available appointments. It’s been a godsend for us, and we have crossed 75 people we have helped get registered, partly thanks to him. His pinned Tweet gives you a sense of the kind of guy he is:
Hi all, many of you have asked about contributing to a venmo/gofundme/etc for the effort. I’m fortunate to be well-taken care of by my day job and instead ask that if you found this useful, and have the means, to donate to @WtChinatown
Huge, we’re taking heed and donating $108 to Welcome to Chinatown, an organization we have written about in newsletters past. Here’s the website if you wish to join us.
Happy Lunar New Year.