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With Lunar New Year Celebrations Scaled Back (Again), People Are Making New Traditions

A family of four takes photos in front of the Bruce Lee statue in Chinatown. A man tries to get the little girl to pose.
A family in traditional Vietnamese dress takes photos in Chinatown.
( Josie Huang
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Growing up in Glendora with a Chinese dad, Stephen Lee saw Lunar New Year as a casual affair with some tradition speckled here and there. While Lee did receive the red envelopes of cash that elders gift younger family members, they were conspicuously thin.

“I never got as much as my friends,” Lee, an artist from Highland Park, said, laughing. “They would get hundreds of dollars. I would get, like, a dollar. I’d get a little salty about that.”

Now as an adult, Lee describes feeling more connected to his Chinese heritage and customs than ever before — something he links to his concern over the surge in attacks on Asians during the pandemic.

He walked through Chinatown on Sunday with his partner, Joy Frederich, who is Chinese American, both of them wanting to usher in the Year of the Tiger among other Asians.

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“I feel the impulse to at least explore that side of myself and think more about it,” Lee said.

A woman in a hat, her back to the camera, browses Lunar New Year decorations on a busy street.
LA's Chinatown drew shoppers from around the region, prepping for Lunar New Year celebrations.
(Josie Huang/LAist)

A Return To Traditions

For a second lunar new year in a row, the pandemic has tamped down travel and scaled back celebrations for the hundreds of millions who mark its start in countries such as China, Vietnam, South Korea and Taiwan and the many other places where diasporas have taken root.

In Southern California, one of its longest-running Lunar New Year events — the annual parade in Chinatown — has gone virtual again, reimagined by organizers as an online program about Chinese zodiac folklore and the history of Asian Americans in L.A.

"We were planning to do everything in person until about three weeks ago when we made a very difficult decision to cancel in light of the city’s concern over large groups gathering," said Gloria Chang Yip, vice president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce.

Other events like the Tet Festival in Costa Mesa are carrying on as planned, although turnout is expected to be lower than normal.

While the challenges to ushering in the Year of the Tiger are many, they've actually prompted some people to cleave even closer to their traditions and find more intimate ways to observe them.

Because of the pandemic, Ruilian Yi and her family have avoided travel to her native China for the past couple lunar new years. That’s led her to put more effort into celebrations at their home in Woodland Hills.

Yi drove to Chinatown to browse the gem-hued qipao in the stalls of the Dynasty Center shopping plaza to wear at dinners she's hosting at her house over the next few days. On the menu are dishes associated with longevity and good fortune.

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A woman of Asian descent in a mask faces the camera in a clothing stall.
Ruilian Yi of Woodland Hills shopped in Chinatown for qipao to wear to Lunar New Year meals she was hosting.
(Josie Huang/LAist)

“Of course fish — nin nin yao yu — mushrooms, all the so-called lucky food!" Yi said, referring in Cantonese to a phrase that plays on the similarity in sound between "fish" and "abundance" and means "abundance year after year."

Yi said she also plans to emphasize the importance of the Lunar New Year to her two children, ages 11 and 17, and stress fresh beginnings.

“I will talk about being more understanding and wanting more peace,” Yi said.

The sidewalks of Chinatown were busy as shoppers perused shelves of red lanterns and cut-out tiger decorations and cradled branches of plum blossoms signifying a prosperous new year to come.

A street away from the Dynasty Center shopping plaza, Lee and Frederich stood in a long line for wonton dumplings to deliver to his parents.

Earlier, Frederich, who works in high school admissions, had purchased a lilac-colored qipao. Adopted by white parents, Frederich said they bought her traditional Chinese clothing when she was a child but this was the first time she thought to choose an outfit herself.

A hand holds a red envelope stamped with a gold tiger
Stephen Lee of Highland Park holds a hand-made red envelope he'll stuff with fake money he designed
( Josie Huang/LAist)

“We’re going to his parents’ house this year so it feels like a bit of a bigger celebration,” Frederich said.

Lee, meanwhile, was looking to put his own spin on tradition. In his bag, he carried red envelopes, which he had hand-stamped with tigers to give to friends and family.

With him being unmarried and not exactly rich, no one is expecting crisp bills from him. Instead Lee inserted into the envelopes fake money he had designed featuring a triumphant-looking tiger holding a bag of cash.

"I feel like we're trying to make new traditions," Lee said.

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.