Corrections or additions?
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
For the people of China and other Asian nations, as well as
the Chinese or Lunar New Year (number 4,698) is fast approaching.
It arrives with the new moon on Saturday, February 5, and is
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
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
At the Opera Room Chinese restaurant, opened in the Montgomery
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
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
scenic artist, and live music on the Gu-zheng (a Chinese
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
with meaning — a condition of dragons in all cultures and
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
for dragon references vary wildly, and are the stuff of songs,
and stained glass windows, as well as stories, so too do their
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
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
treasure. These Asian dragons are positive power figures, usually
benevolent and kindly toward humans — except when severely
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
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,
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
in the finance department at Rider University. Because in Eastern
cultures the dragon is regarded as such a positive creature,
good luck and fortune, everyone wants a dragon son." So, she
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.)
May is the dragon month, and 10 a.m. is the hour of the dragon.
because the dragon has many of the characteristics of the other zodiac
animals, a "dragon person" is an individual of many
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
on the second moon after the December 21 winter solstice. The
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
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"
for good fortune, are commonly part of the decorations; when printed
upside down, that character sounds like the word meaning "to
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
"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
Korea is among the other Asian countries where the Lunar New Year,
called "Seol," is observed. But, says David Suk, also a
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,
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
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
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
Pennsylvania Museum , 33rd and Spruce streets, Philadelphia,
Saturday, February 5, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The 19th annual day-long celebration features traditional music,
demonstrations, martial arts, performances, and food, with the
Chinese Lion Dance and Firecracker Parade finale. $5 adults; $2.50
children and seniors.
Windsor, Saturday, February 5, 11:30 a.m. Sponsored by the
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
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
Houtien Cheng. Dance program features "Passage to the Silk
"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
the dance program with authentic Chinese instruments including a
flute, "erhu" (two 2-string fiddles); "yang qu"
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.
$12 to $20. For information call Zhaobo (Bob) Wang, chair of the
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.
Mrs. Yang (Jian Yea Yang), 609-520-8370. Saturday, February 12,
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.
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
will be on view for a month, with all proceeds to benefit the library.
Foundation , Hyatt Regency Princeton, 609-586-4800, ext. 3269.
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.
Restaurants are another facet of this holiday. A short
list of venues offering New Year banquet menus follows. Other
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.
Road, 609-716-8323. Special New Year’s food will be offered as
along with the regular menu.
Special menu offered February 4 to 10, for minimum party of six.
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
From February 5 to 20, a Chinese banquet menu is available for $45
per person, with a minimum party of five; BYO. Reservations required.
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,
with black bean sauce, chicken and eggplant in garlic sauce. And
Thai silver noodles and Malaysian style noodles are noted favorites.
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