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The Other Big Party: How Silicon Valley Celebrates Lunar New Year

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A traditional lion dance entrances the crowd at a recent Lunar New Year Celebration in Redwood City's courthouse square. (Courtesy Jeff Gee)

Lunar New Year hits on Monday and with more than half a million ethnic Chinese living in the Bay Area, it’s a big deal here. It’s a big deal for many Asian cultures, but the huge influx immigrants from China to work in Silicon Valley in recent years has stimulated the region’s excitement around this holiday season.

Traditionally, festivities begin the day before the New Year, a date decided by the Chinese lunar calendar — which is why it feels like the start varies year to year — and continues on for two weeks.

But for Bay Area families, there’s an extra kickoff festivity this year: the Super Bowl. The timing is such it’s possible to tune in to the big game Sunday afternoon, and then switch over afterwards to the gala broadcast from mainland China, joining well over a billion viewers around the world. (Just a few more than watch the Super Bowl.)

After the gala comes a plethora of festivals, which are happening all over the South Bay. New to the celebrations is the Palo Alto Chinese Parents’ Club, which is co-hosting its first ever Chinese New Year Fair. Like most other fairs, it will include lion dances, martial arts demonstrations, arts and crafts seminars for the kids, and traditional foods like dumplings.

The start of a new tradition?
The start of a new tradition? (Courtesy Palo Alto Chinese Parents’ Club)

“This event was designed as a community building event. It’s a platform for the Chinese community and greater community to connect,” says Palo Alto Chinese Parents’ Club co-founder Debra Cen, who helped start the club to help new immigrants integrate with Palo Alto’s community, as well as extend a welcoming hand to those unfamiliar with Chinese culture.


The money raised from the fair will be donated to the local school district. That, combined with the goal of the fair, is why Cen and her fellow club members are hoping the city of Palo Alto co-sponsors their New Year festivals in years to come.

Other Bay Area cities like Redwood City already do. As a matter of fact, Redwood City Councilman Jeff Gee not only organizes that local festival — this year it’s on Feb. 27 — he’s also the official photographer.

A toddler can't help but reach out to check out this lion at a recent Redwood City's Lunar New Year Celebration.
A toddler can’t help but reach out to check out this lion at a recent Redwood City’s Lunar New Year Celebration. (Courtesy Jeff Gee)

“We’ll probably have 3-5,000 people from all over the Bay Area. It’s just grown every single year. It’s been pretty amazing,” Gee says.

Lunar New Year is also a big deal for the Vietnamese, and Ha Vy, who helps organize the Vietnam Tet Festival 2016 in San Jose, says she expects 20,000 people to turn up at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds Feb. 13 & 14. As with Chinese New Year, you can expect to see lion dances, and martial arts demonstrations, but the food will be decidedly Vietnamese: bbq, egg rolls, spring rolls, bánh mì, and the like.

“Every family has a different way of doing it, but essentially, they all try to come together and spend the holiday together. Like Thanksgiving. It’s the same concept,” Vy says.

Vietnamese Tet Festival aims to attract a broad audience. Organizer Ha Thy says “We have some people that have been calling from So Cal trying to get tickets.” One person called from Tennessee planning a family reunion in San Jose.
Vietnamese Tet Festival aims to attract a broad audience. Organizer Ha Vy says “We have some people that have been calling from So Cal trying to get tickets.” One person called from Tennessee planning a family reunion in San Jose. (Courtesy Vietnamese Tet Festival)

The music will be different, too. More than 40 years after the fall of Saigon sent a surge of refugees to San Jose, a new generation of Vietnamese-Americans is taking over organizing community events, and they are changing things up just a bit.

As 21-year-old Vy explains, “Sometimes when you have performance that are more geared to the older generation, they’ll drag the children along, but that doesn’t mean the children will enjoy it.”

While there will be plenty of the classic ballad singers her parents and grandparents love, Vy is much more excited about younger performers they’ve managed to line up, like Mai Tiến Dũng.

“He sings very upbeat music. He’s very good looking,” Vy says. “He’s a fantastic performer that will bring in the younger generations.”

On a more classical note, the El Camino Youth Symphony is celebrating the Lunar New Year by hosting Juilliard alum Gwhyneth Chen, who will perform the Yellow River Piano Concerto on Feb. 6. And Stanford is holding a Celebration of Asia, which will consist of three concerts featuring local musicians from Iran, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Japan, as well as the Forbidden City Chamber Orchestra from China.

On Feb. 28, Hakone Estate and Gardens hosts a celebration that features, among other traditional activities, a children’s parade. Last but not least, the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts will host Spring Festival Silicon Valley on Mar. 5. Like the concerts at Stanford, this festival will have a Pan-Asian flavor, featuring Chinese, Indian, Tajikistan, Dai, Tibetan, and Korean music and dance.

Of course, no article about Lunar New Year celebrations in the Bay Area would be complete without paying proper respect to the granddaddy of celebrations in San Francisco, which dates back to the 1860s. Many of the people I talked to intend to make a pilgrimage north on Feb. 20. If you can’t be there physically, you can tune in to watch it on KTVU Fox 2 or KTSF Channel 26.

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