That’s “Happy New Year” in Vietnamese. (as seen in Little Saigon – Westminster, CA)
This is Happy New Year in Chinese: 新年快乐
In Japanese: 新年あけましておめでとうございます
In Korean: 새해 복 많이 받으세요
Asians all over the world celebrated the first day of the Lunar New Year on Sunday, February 14th. The Year of the Tiger was welcomed with great joy and hope for prosperity and happiness. The tiger symbolizes such character traits as bravery, competitiveness, and unpredictability; if you’re curious, you can find out what sign you were born under here and what 2010 may hold for you here.
Last week my friend Monique and I met at the ABC Supermarket shopping center at Bolsa and Brookhurst in what’s known as Little Saigon in Westminster. I wanted to photograph and learn about the many symbols and customs associated with Chinese New Year and Monique acted as my translator and tour guide.
Only 10:30 a.m. and traffic was backed up on Brookhurst and the parking lot was swarming with erratic drivers looking for a spot. I parked way in the back.
Flowers are an important part of decorating a home for Tết, the Vietnamese celebration for the Lunar New Year. The climate dictates the types of flowers available, in Southern California plum blossom branches and water narcissus are the two flowers most associated with the New Year.
In the midst of the crush of shoppers and staccato sounds of a foreign language, were two monks walking, eyes cast downward, moving silently amongst the crowd carrying a bamboo container tucked under their robes, discreetly revealed only when a passer-by offers a few dollars.
Tangerines, oranges, and pomelos are frequently displayed in homes and stores. Tangerines are symbolic of good luck and oranges are symbolic of wealth. The first store we entered had a tangerine tree decorated with lai-see envelopes (also called hong-bao). Money is placed inside the red envelopes and given to children and young adults as gifts.
Traditional gifts given to families are rice cakes called banh chung made from white rice, marinated strips of pork and yellow mung beans. I had wanted to photograph Monique making a traditional New Year’s food but she said that everyone buys these in stores now because they are too labor-intensive to make at home. I read a very touching article by Ky-Phong Tran in the Orange County Register recalling memories of his grandfather making the rice cakes every New Year – the only thing he ever made and how this tradition was his father’s way of reaching back 35 years and 8,000 miles to his childhood in the homeland.
Stores are piled high with colorful containers of candies and nuts that are also given as gifts.
From here we went to the fruit market where Monique identified the exotic fruits for me and described their taste and how they’re eaten. There was dragon fruit, an exotic lemon that looks like it has “fingers”, gigantic jack fruit whose seeds are boiled and taste like chestnuts, prickly durian that’s called “stinky fruit” and has a custardy filling. I bought a package of mangosteens which are cracked open and has white fruit segments similar to an orange.
Monique purchased some traditional Vietnamese desserts, made from glutinous rice, similar to what we know as tapioca or rice pudding. On our way back to the car, she bought a plum blossom branch to decorate her home.
As we were leaving, a commotion erupted when the police and zoning people arrived. Vendors were told that they couldn’t have their stands spilling over into the fire lane and a few were sent packing because they had no seller’s license.
The weekend brought the parades and pageantry of Tết festival followed by 10 days of celebrating the Year of the Tiger with family and friends.
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