Gung Hay Fat Choy!
Lunar New Year celebrations flourish as Asian communities grow throughout Contra Costa and the Tri-Valley
At Tin’s Tea House in Walnut Creek, you know it’s Chinese New Year when every table in the banquet hall is decorated with a plate of magnolias and oranges, and the kitchen is a beehive of activity as cooks ready huge platters of Chinese charcuterie, Peking duck, and crispy lettuce cups. The restaurant, in conjunction with the Diablo Valley Chinese Cultural Association, hosts an annual feast to celebrate the Lunar New Year as observed in Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean, and other Asian cultures.
The crowd at Tin’s New Year’s banquet includes both old and young, and although most of the crowd is Chinese, it welcomes people of non-Asian origin, including Caucasian parents who have adopted children from China. Most of the kids in attendance are awaiting their moment in the spotlight as dancers and musicians in the evening’s performances. Many of these youngsters take classes at the Contra Costa Chinese School, an organization established by some of the members of the former Diablo Valley Chinese Women’s Club.
“Back in 1973, the Chinese women’s group formed here in Contra Costa,” says Cedric Cheng, a 34-year-old graphic designer from Concord and former president of the Diablo Valley Chinese Cultural Association, as the women’s club is known today. “Back then, the Chinese community out here was small, but these women had the foresight to promote our language and culture among the children. They taught Cantonese, because that was the dialect from their ancestral homes in Guangdong Province.”
Attendance in such cultural associations and schools is growing in Contra Costa, where the Asian population has nearly doubled in the past 15 years, from about 77,000 to approximately 135,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Alameda County’s Asian community is also growing, with nearly 350,000 people of Asian origin living in the area today, up from fewer than 200,000 in 1990.
As the banquet at Tin’s gets under way, guests delve into course after course. The meal begins with a platter of cold appetizers: Chinese-style charcuterie, one variety wrapped in bean curd with a two-tone filling; translucent jellyfish salad; seaweed salad with sesame dressing; barbecued marinated pork of the sort you see hanging in Chinese restaurant and market windows; crisp baby octopus salad dressed in sesame-orange sauce; thin slices of dry-aged beef; and pickled cucumbers, carrots, and radishes. Yes, that’s just the first course.
Next comes Peking duck served with steamed buns and plum sauce, followed by crisp lettuce cups with a savory duck filling; shredded chicken and dry scallop soup; sautéed prawns and scallops; and tender whole roasted chicken, chopped into pieces and served with Chinese five spice. Many of the foods have symbolic significance, such as the whole steamed fish, the second-to-last course, which is served with head and tail intact: The dish’s Chinese name, yu, sounds like the Chinese word for surplus. Abundance is a major theme of the holiday, and many of the celebratory foods are round or cut into discs to symbolize coins or bags of money.
Soon, the young dancers take the impromptu stage at the front of the room, their little calves clad in long black cuffs lined with bells, to perform a Taiwanese high-mountain aboriginal dance. In unison, the girls throw their arms up in the air and then bring them back down as they lunge their bare feet forward and back so their bells sound. Each of their faces is framed by multicolor pom-poms attached to a red feather headdress. The older children play Chinese instruments to accompany the dancers.
These youngsters have learned the dances and songs they are performing tonight at the Contra Costa Chinese School. It’s not hard to see why the program, whose main focus is teaching the Chinese language, appeals to kids: Along with these dances, the curriculum includes martial arts and even Chinese yo-yo.
The next act at Tin’s banquet features girls in green sequined tutus whose moves aren’t exactly Chinese but rather hail from the land of fairy princesses—the one known to little girls everywhere. The boisterous finish is the dragon dance, in which children inhabit the fabric beast and dash among the tables to the sharp sounds of small drums.
“This is such a charming event because children are involved,” says former Walnut Creek mayor Kathy Hicks, who attended last year’s celebration. “So many of the events I go to are just adults, even those that are benefiting kids. Here, the children are a part of everything.”
When the dragon dance is over, everybody lingers at their tables over a final course of red beans and tapioca and miniature sweet egg tarts. The dessert and hot tea draw out the warm feeling held among friends and family gathered in this bright room on a dark winter’s night.
Ringing in the New Lunar Year
This year’s Lunar New Year starts February 18. The holiday always begins on a new moon (that’s no moon, so the sky is dark) and finishes 15 days later with a full moon.
The Chinese year that’s beginning this month is 4705, the year of the pig (or wild boar). People born in 1923, 1935, 1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, and 1995 are all “pigs.” But don’t worry if you are one; according to traditional lore, those born under the sign of the pig are fastidious, loyal, hard-working, and appreciative of the finer things in life.
Lunar New Year holiday observations include traditional banquets, visits with family and friends, thorough housecleaning, hanging calligraphy banners, assembling altars of traditional foods, and parents and elders giving children “lucky money” in small red envelopes.
You and your family can celebrate Chinese New Year at the following events.
Oakland Chinatown Lunar New Year’s Bazaar. Saturday–Sunday, February 10–11, 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Ninth and Franklin streets, Oakland. For details call (510) 893-8979 or visit www.oaklandchinatownchamber.org .
Fourth Annual Tri-Valley Chinese American Cooperation Council’s New Year Performance. Sunday, February 18, 7:30 p.m., Amador Theater, 1155 Santa Rita Rd., Pleasanton. Tickets are $15; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to order tickets.
Southwest Airlines Chinese New Year Parade. Saturday, March 3, 5:30 p.m., from Market and Second streets to Kearny and Jackson streets, San Francisco. (415) 982-3071, www.chineseparade.com .
Diablo Valley Chinese Cultural Association’s Chinese New Year Celebration. Saturday, March 10, 5:30 p.m., Tin’s Tea House Lounge, 1829 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Walnut Creek, (925) 287-8288. Tickets are $35. For reservations, contact Cedric Cheng of the Diablo Valley Chinese Cultural Association, (925) 216-9880, email@example.com.
Celebrate Chinese New Year With The Red Panda Acrobats In San Ramon. Saturday, February 10 at 6 and 8 p.m., The Front Row Theater is located at the Dougherty Station Community Center, 17011 Bollinger Canyon Rd., San Ramon. Tickets are $12/adults and $10/seniors & youth. To purchase tickets please call (925) 973-3350 or visit www.SanRamon.ca.gov/tickets.
Celebrate the Year of the Pig at Trader Vic's in Emeryville. February 17 and 18 at 6 p.m. Trader Vic's, 9 Anchor Dr., Emeryville. Enjoy a special Chinese New Year menu created by eecutive chef Isaac Diaz $52 per person. For reservations.call (510) 653-3400 or visit www.tradervics.com.
To learn more about Chinese cultural programs, visit the following websites:
Diablo Valley Chinese Cultural Association, www.dvcca.org.
Contra Costa Chinese School, ww.cococs.org .
Tri-Valley Chinese American Cooperation Council, www.caccusa.org .