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The Oregonian: Portland's Chinese community celebrates Year of the Dragon with new traditions
Author: Kelly House, The Oregonian
Posted: January 23, 2012

For the original story and photo, go here

Meiru Liu, director of Portland State University's Confucius Institute, will awake this morning to a breakfast of vegetarian dumplings, hoping the simple meal will bring her prosperity in the Year of the Dragon.

She'll buy crates of tangerines -- a symbol of good luck in Chinese culture -- and hang the Mandarin symbol for happiness on the front door. It's a tradition she picked up as a child in Tianjin, China, and brought to Portland 23 years ago.

"It's the biggest time of the year for me," Liu says.
Liu is one of more than 39,500 Oregonians of Chinese descent who today will celebrate the Lunar New Year, an event so huge in China that the entire nation goes on a week-long holiday to celebrate. There are elaborate family meals, ceremonial housecleaning, new clothes, wall-to-wall decorations in nearly every household and humongous street parties where children run wild and firecrackers pierce the night.

Portland's celebrations are much more modest, but no less culturally significant.

Although most Chinese now follow the Western Gregorian calendar, the country's citizens still celebrate the new year according to the lunar calendar, which measures time in relation to the phases of the moon.

This year marks the Year of the Dragon, the strongest of all signs in the Chinese zodiac. Babies born this year, according to traditional beliefs, will be energetic, charismatic, ambitious and self-assured.

Today, the holiday is marked with 15 days of revelry focused on food and family. Families prepare to usher in the New Year by cleaning house, repainting doors and windows, settling debts and buying new clothes to signify a fresh start.

They place citrus fruit throughout the house -- a symbol of abundance and good fortune -- and decorate the walls with red paper scrawled with messages of happiness and prosperity.

The holiday is particularly special for children, who benefit from a custom known as "hong bao," or "red packet," in which adults present children with red envelopes filled with money.

As with the American custom, fireworks at midnight ring in the New Year. A Festival of Lanterns on the 15th day brings the celebration to a close.

In China, the celebration begins and ends with a family feast in the eldest family member's home, typically including traditional foods meant to bring good luck.
A cultural shift

When the first Chinese immigrants settled in Portland in the mid-1800s, they brought their traditions with them.

In the heyday of Portland's Chinatown, family groups celebrated with big dinners and street parties.

Betty Jean Lee, 77, can remember spending every New Year at her grandmother's house, eating traditional foods while wearing the brand new outfit her mother had bought.

"It was exciting as a child, because you got new clothes and you got to stay up late," Lee says.

Some of the old-timers still follow those traditions, but the number is dwindling, says Bruce Wong, past president of the Portland Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and an elder statesman among the city's Chinese. "The American-born like me have some of the traditions, but we don't keep them all," he says. "We have no strings tied to China anymore. We're melding with American traditions."

Portland's celebration, he says, will be quieter and shorter-lived, but no less important. The traditions have simply changed with time, distance and cultural assimilation.

New traditions

For most Portland Chinese, the New Year's feast won't be dished up on grandma's finest tableware. Food will come served up family style from a smiling waitress at one of the city's many Chinese restaurants.

Local favorites such as Golden Horse, Hung Far Low and Wong's King will be packed with family gatherings from now through February. Menus will feature New Year's specials with traditional foods. There will be dumplings, of course, plus fish and citrus fruits, chicken and special New Year cakes known as nian gao.

"They'll have a little Buddha and put up couplets and incense because most of the people that come over will want to honor (the New Year)," Wong says.

The American way of celebrating the new year foregoes some of the familial customs, but don't rush to call it a loss of culture, says Wong, who will celebrate with his family at Golden Horse. It's more a matter of necessity.

In China, the New Year is government-sanctioned. Families get a full week to prepare and celebrate. In America, the kids stay in school and the adults keep working. There isn't time to devote to elaborate preparations and celebrations.

Plus, many Oregonian Chinese are thousands of miles away from their family's eldest members. Instead of celebrating in the home, many American-born Chinese use the holiday to strengthen cultural ties at large feasts hosted by local cultural organizations.

"The Chinese community is a minority population, so it's an excuse for all the Chinese to get together," says John Wong, a representative for the Northwest China Council, which will host a banquet on Feb. 25. Other customs such as the annual dragon dance, musical performance and lantern show, will be left up to cultural organizations and Lan Su Chinese Garden, which will host two weeks' worth of events to celebrate the new year from today until Feb. 6.

But amid the changing customs, one tradition lives on unchanged in nearly every Portland Chinese family. Adults still stock up on red money-filled envelopes for the children. That tradition, Lee says, will never change.

Sidebar: Lunar New Year Events in Portland

  • Lan Su Chinese Garden will host New Year's events through Feb. 6, including a traditional lion dance today at 10 a.m. and lantern viewings on Feb. 5 and 6.
  • The Portland Chinese Times will host a cultural fair from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Feb. 11 at the Oregon Convention Center, 777 NE MLK Jr. Blvd.
  • The Portland Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Organization's banquet is Jan. 30 at Wong's King, 8733 S.E. Division St.
  • The Chinese American Citizens Alliance's banquet is Feb. 6 at Wong's King. Tickets are $50.
  • The Northwest China Council will host a banquet Feb. 25 at Legin Restaurant, 8001 S.E. Division St. Tickets are $55 per person, or $500 for a 10-person table.
  • The Portland State University Confucius Institute will host a New Year Celebration Gala on Saturday at the Smith Memorial Student Union ballroom, 1825 S.W. Broadway.