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Author: Pat Summers. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 2,

2000. All rights reserved.

Happy Year of the Dragon

Happy New Year! No, not that new year. "Xin Nien

Kuai Le!" (Mandarin) or "Sun Nin Fy Lok!" (Cantonese).

In other words, "Happy Chinese New Year!"

Just as the recent change of the millennium was not as global an event

as we who observed it may have assumed — it marks 2,000 years

since the estimated date of the birth of Christ, an occasion of no

direct consequence to much of the world where myriad other religions

are practiced and different calendars are observed — new year

celebrations, recently completed here, are about to begin for millions

of others.

For the people of China and other Asian nations, as well as

Asian-Americans,

the Chinese or Lunar New Year (number 4,698) is fast approaching.

It arrives with the new moon on Saturday, February 5, and is

celebrated

for two weeks. And this year is extra special because it’s a Dragon

Year, which occurs only once every 12 years.

Since according to the 1990 census, almost a quarter of the more than

60,000 Chinese-Americans in New Jersey live in Mercer (about 3,000)

or Middlesex County (about 11,000), the plethora of Chinese New Year

activities in this area should come as no surprise. Sponsors of the

events range from the area’s dedicated Chinese Schools to the Central

Jersey Chinese-American Association and the West Windsor Human

Relations

Council to the Delaware-Raritan Girl Scout Council that celebrated

last Saturday, January 29.

Offerings range from an elaborate dance and music production by the

Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center,

Newark, to a variety of smaller-scale observances in high schools

and colleges. The University of Pennsylvania continues its annual

day-long celebration with a range of Chinese culture demonstrations

and festive events, and many area Chinese restaurants offer New Year

banquet menus.

At the Opera Room Chinese restaurant, opened in the Montgomery

Shopping

Center in Skillman, owners Sissi Lu, her husband, Peter Lu, and their

partner, James Qian, will observe the new year with a special memu,

on the evenings of February 4, 5, and 6 ($38.88 per person). Qian

and the Lus are members of New York’s Opera Club, and have all

performed

in New York’s Chinese Opera. "We love the excitement and the drama

of the Chinese Opera, and wanted to create a restaurant that inspired

those same feelings — and offered exceptional food," says

Sissi Lu. The Opera Room’s unique attractions include a decor that

features scenes from China’s most famous operas, painted by a

professional

scenic artist, and live music on the Gu-zheng (a Chinese

zither-like

instrument) and the pipa or lute, every evening except Monday,

performed by Li Sun, a professional musician from Beijing.

As the only mythical beast in the Chinese zodiac that

comprises 12 animals — rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake,

horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig — the dragon is

fraught

with meaning — a condition of dragons in all cultures and

countries,

for virtually all time. (Consider mythological, fantasy, and heroic

tales, from England’s St. George, fighting the good fight against

a bad dragon, to Tolkien’s smoldering "Smaug," and from Anne

McCaffrey’s mighty dragons of Pern to "Norbert," Hagrid’s

pampered dragon pet in the first Harry Potter book.) Just as the

mediums

for dragon references vary wildly, and are the stuff of songs,

sculpture,

and stained glass windows, as well as stories, so too do their

temperaments,

and even their looks.

Traditionally, Western dragons are not nice guys. When we think of

dragons we see fearful green fire-breathers that are our enemies;

often they can fly, and too often they have a taste for humans. Yet

Asian dragons, very likely the ancient ancestors of our own, are

altogether

different. Sometimes believed to have evolved from sea serpents and

thought to still live in crystal palaces at the bottom of oceans and

rivers, they control rainfall and water levels, while guarding

fabulous

treasure. These Asian dragons are positive power figures, usually

benevolent and kindly toward humans — except when severely

provoked,

when they may wreak havoc with storms and floods.

As a symbol, the dragon represents the male principle, and, of special

import to Chinese people, before the Republic of China it stood for

the Chinese Emperor, who was said to sit on the Dragon Throne. The

Chinese people believe they are descendants of the Dragon.

As might be expected, the dragon figures prominently in Chinese New

Year celebrations. Together with sunshine, bright light, loud noises,

or fireworks, and fire, or the color red — the three elements

known to be feared by the Nian monster, an evil spirit that appears

at year’s end — dragons are also key deterrents. The dragon dance,

in which men move under segments of a long dragon costume to resemble

a writhing beast, is a favorite element of the Lantern Festival

parades

that mark the end of the two-week New Year celebration, at the time

of the next full moon on February 19. The dragon motif recurs in early

summer with the Dragon Boat festival that springs from yet another

legend involving this most versatile of beasts, the dragon.

The range of dragon descriptions is limited only by the number of

those describing the creature — or should we say by the eye of

the fancifier or believer? In its simplest, dictionary form,

"dragon"

is a gigantic reptile having a lion’s claws, the tail of a serpent,

wings, and a scaly skin. But, as Cyrano protested to a man who leveled

puny criticism at his great nose, "Ah, no, young sir! You are

too simple. Why, you might have said — Oh, a great many things!

Mon dieu, why waste your opportunity?" So, for instance, some

believe the dragon to have the head of a camel, the horns of a stag,

eyes of a demon, ears of a cow, neck of a snake, belly of a clam,

scales of a carp, claws of an eagle, and paws of a tiger.

Other versions of the vision make the dragon a composite of the 11

other animals in the zodiac — not a reluctant dragon, but surely

a patchwork one. And the so-called "Imperial dragon" may be

shown with five claws, instead of the usual four, to distinguish him

from lesser dragons. (Pecking orders everywhere.)

A Dragon Year is the most important one, says Feng-Ying Liu, a

professor

in the finance department at Rider University. Because in Eastern

cultures the dragon is regarded as such a positive creature,

"signifying

good luck and fortune, everyone wants a dragon son." So, she

notes,

the birth rate goes up during a Dragon Year — and why not: it’s

a 12-year wait. (The Phoenix, representing the female principle, and

on an imperial level, the Chinese empress, is also a mythological

creature, though one not represented in the zodiac. For that reason,

there is not a parallel lucky year in which to have a daughter.)

Further,

May is the dragon month, and 10 a.m. is the hour of the dragon.

Probably

because the dragon has many of the characteristics of the other zodiac

animals, a "dragon person" is an individual of many

experiences

and talents.

Developed about 5,000 years ago, the Chinese, or Lunar

calendar is actually based on a combination of the lunar and solar

cycles. Therefore the date changes each year, with the new year

beginning

on the second moon after the December 21 winter solstice. The

celebration

can last for about two weeks, ending with the Lantern Festival at

the time of the next full moon — this year, in mid-February.

As the year’s biggest holiday — described as the West’s major

holidays rolled up into one — the Chinese New Year is replete

with customs and symbols and ways to celebrate. Depending on where

they live and financial considerations, the time available and the

size and inclination of the family, the degree to which

Asian-Americans

might celebrate the new year also varies. As is true with traditional

Western holidays, the presence of children makes a big difference,

for much of the celebration involves them, allowing them to adopt

and carry on the traditions.

For Chinese people, the New Year’s celebration begins after Tsao Wang,

the kitchen god, ascends to heaven to report on the family. The house

is cleaned, new clothes are donned, hair is cut: all is freshened

and made ready for the new year. Signs with the "Fu"

character,

for good fortune, are commonly part of the decorations; when printed

upside down, that character sounds like the word meaning "to

arrive,"

implying the arrival of prosperity. Red, for joy and happiness, is

the prevailing color: Strips of red paper are used to seal the doors

of the house, keeping good luck inside; red luck candles are

displayed;

"spring couplets" spelling out hoped-for blessings are printed

on red paper and hung; adults give children "Hongbao," or

"red envelopes" containing "lucky money."

Family reconciliation and feasting commence on New Year’s eve, and

related customs include honoring ancestors and visiting relatives.

This is also the season for making up with enemies and paying off

all debts. Fireworks, flowers, and parades with lion and dragon dances

are perennial, and popular, elements. At the Lantern Festival ending

the New Year observance, the round shapes of the sweet rice dumplings

traditionally eaten convey, symbolically, hope for a well-rounded

new year.

Korea is among the other Asian countries where the Lunar New Year,

called "Seol," is observed. But, says David Suk, also a

professor

in Rider’s finance department, there are some differences. The central

theme in Korea is the "gathering" of families. And in that

country, where just a few surnames, such as Lee, Kim, and Park,

account

for 50 to 60 percent of the major clans, half the population must

therefore travel, causing tremendous traffic congestion. The custom

of "Sebe," or the bowing of children to their elders, is

practiced,

and in return, seniors traditionally give them money. Traditional

food is consumed and "Hanbok," or special clothing, is worn.

Kite-flying and competing, snow-sliding, and "Chesa" —

inviting ancestral spirits to eat and bless special food — also

take place.

Now we have our own work to do: writing couplets, cleaning house,

planning the family feast, paying our debts, walking the dragon. The

dragon? Oh, of course: "Happy Year of the Dragon!"

— Pat Summers

New Year Events

Annual Chinese New Year Celebration, University of

Pennsylvania Museum , 33rd and Spruce streets, Philadelphia,

215-898-4000.

Saturday, February 5, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The 19th annual day-long celebration features traditional music,

dance,

demonstrations, martial arts, performances, and food, with the

traditional

Chinese Lion Dance and Firecracker Parade finale. $5 adults; $2.50

children and seniors.

Lunar New Year Celebration, West Windsor Town Hall, West

Windsor, Saturday, February 5, 11:30 a.m. Sponsored by the

township’s

Human Relations Council.

The town hall will be decorated for the New Year, and a dragon —

special ordered from China by Mrs. Wei-Ling Wu, who heads the Chinese

program at the high school — will be part of the festivities.

After the mayor reads a proclamation, participants will travel to

the West Windsor Senior Center, where school kids will perform a brief

Chinese program. For information call coordinator Stella Han, at

609-799-5184.

Year of the Dragon Festival, Nai-Ni Chen Dance

Company ,

New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark, 201-947-8403. Saturday

and Sunday, February 5 and 6, at 2 p.m.

In the lobby, a demonstration by paper-cutting "master

artist,"

Houtien Cheng. Dance program features "Passage to the Silk

River,"

"Mongolian Chopstick Dance," and "Dragon Dance," one

of the most spectacular folk dances, performed by seven dancers and

a 20-foot long dragon. The Chinese Music Ensemble of New York

accompanies

the dance program with authentic Chinese instruments including a

bamboo

flute, "erhu" (two 2-string fiddles); "yang qu"

(hammer

dulcimer); "ren" (a guitar-like instrument); "pipa"

(Chinese lute); "gahu" (Chinese cello), and a Chinese bass.

Saturday ticket package ($100) includes a 10-course banquet at the

King’s Chef, a Cantonese restaurant in Woodbridge. Performance tickets

only, $18 adults; $10 children.

Huaxia Gala 2000, Middlesex County Community College,

$12 to $20. For information call Zhaobo (Bob) Wang, chair of the

trustees

of the Edison Chinese School, at 732-494-6560. Saturday, February

5, 7 p.m.

Family activities sponsored by seven branches of Huaxia (Hwa-sha)

Chinese Schools, of which Edison is the largest, and Plainsboro,

Hillsborough, Marlboro, Bloomfield, Fort Lee, and Boonton

are the other members. All are volunteer-run. Gala features dance

and music, face-painting and fortune tellers.

Princeton Chinese School, Lawrence High School.

Information

Mrs. Yang (Jian Yea Yang), 609-520-8370. Saturday, February 12,

7 p.m.

The school, which meets every Sunday afternoon at Stuart School of

the Sacred Heart, will use the larger facilities of the Lawrence High

School for the New Year’s celebration. This begins with a dinner for

students and families, followed by a public program at 7 p.m. Each

of the school’s three classes will perform (singing and dancing),

with dragon dance and lion dance leading off.

Seow-Chu See’s Art of the Dragon, Plainsboro Public

Library,

641 Plainsboro Road, 609-275-2897. Saturday, February 12.

Calligrapher Seow-Chu See will display and sell different styles of

writing "dragon" in the library’s new Art Alley. The Princeton

Junction artist, whose calligraphic process and art were featured

in U.S. 1 (April 14, 1999) and whose work illustrates the article

above (see page 37), was recently awarded a prize for her Chinese

brush painting, "Autumn Field," in the Garden State Watercolor

Society’s juried exhibition at the New Jersey State Museum. The

exhibit

will be on view for a month, with all proceeds to benefit the library.

A Chinese New Year Celebration, Mercer County College

Foundation , Hyatt Regency Princeton, 609-586-4800, ext. 3269.

Saturday,

March 4, 6:30 p.m.

A Chinese New Year Celebration ushering in the Year of the Dragon

is the theme of the 11th annual scholarship dinner dance. Scott Kent

of Wawa Inc., and Don Tretola of PSE&G are co-chairs. $175.

Restaurant Fare

Restaurants are another facet of this holiday. A short

list of venues offering New Year banquet menus follows. Other

restaurants

may do so on request. It’s a good idea to ask what’s available and

find out if a minimum number of patrons is required.

First Wok, Southfield Shopping Center,

Princeton-Hightstown

Road, 609-716-8323. Special New Year’s food will be offered as

specials

along with the regular menu.

Lotus Garden, 10 Schalks Crossing Road, Plainsboro,

609-799-8888.

Special menu offered February 4 to 10, for minimum party of six.

Reservations

required.

Opera Room Restaurant, 1325 Route 206, Montgomery Center,

Skillman, 609-921-8551. On February 4, 5, and 6, from 7 to 9 p.m.,

a special menu is available for $38.88 per person; BYO. Reservations

required.

Sunny Garden, 15 Farber Road, Princeton, 609-520-1881.

From February 5 to 20, a Chinese banquet menu is available for $45

per person, with a minimum party of five; BYO. Reservations required.

Tiger Noodles, 260 Nassau Street, Princeton, 609-252-0663.

Open every day 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; closed Sunday lunch only. Owner

Huey Yang says that although his restaurant’s limited size does not

allow him to offer a traditional New Year banquet, his regular menu

favorites suitable for celebration include vegetable dumplings,

chicken

with black bean sauce, chicken and eggplant in garlic sauce. And

Tiger’s

Thai silver noodles and Malaysian style noodles are noted favorites.


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