Global City

A pandemic-inspired Lunar New Year: celebrating Asia’s biggest holiday at home and abroad

The social impact of COVID-19 is perhaps most profound during what is supposed to be a time of festivity and reunion.

Hong Kong – On Lunar New Year’s eve, Michelle Au ordered a bowl of Dan Dan noodles and dumplings from the Chinese restaurant nearby to have a taste of home. This became her first time celebrating the festival alone by ordering takeout and staying-in. Such is the result of COVID-19 – and how many USC students were forced to celebrate this year.

Au is a senior studying cinema and media studies at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. She is originally from Hong Kong, where the tradition of celebrating Lunar New Year warrants national holidays, bustling festivals, and copious decoration.

“It was really yeet lao,” Au said. “Yeet lao” are the phonetics for “bustling” in Cantonese. “I feel like Hong Kong does a good job of embracing those festivals,” she added. “[Lunar New Year] is important to Hong Kong because it represents welcoming a fresh new start and bringing good fortune.”

Normally, Lunar New Year falls near the beginning of USC’s spring semester, so international students have to celebrate the festival thousands of miles away from their hometowns. This year, though, they faced the dilemma of attending online classes in their homes abroad or flying back to Los Angeles to avoid a time-difference. Au chose the latter.

“All I did was order food… that was my celebration,” Au said. She took out the trash and avoided washing her hair, as per tradition. “I did the small things that I could,” she added.

Her “celebration” was in stark contrast to her previous years in Los Angeles. Au recounted that she would “go to a Chinese restaurant usually in Monterey Park” followed by karaoke. “We had one year where [my friends] gave red packets to each other, but we made it like cute little letters or cards [instead of] money,” she added.

There were no Lunar New Year festivities on the USC campus this year. Bao Nhia Moua, Center Supervisor of Asian Pacific American Student Services, told Annenberg Media that “due to the pandemic we recognized the celebration through our social media.”

About half an hour’s drive northeast of USC is the USC Pacific Asia Museum, or PAM. PAM holds “the only free Lunar New Year program in Pasadena,” according to Cristina Hernandez-Guerrero, the museum’s Public and Campus Programs Specialist. “Traditionally, we have an in-person celebration at the museum… and we see about 2000 people for that,” she said.

In past years, there have been food trucks, art-making, storytime and lion dance performances.

Due to COVID-19, PAM closed its doors in March last year. “As soon as we closed, we started thinking about Lunar New Year,” Hernandez-Guerreo said. She added that they had to “come up with a plan A, B, and C,” and that “COVID really taught us is to think ahead.” According to Hernandez-Guerrero, PAM has consistently celebrated Lunar New Year for the past 40 years, “so we never wanted to cancel it. It wasn’t an option.”

Eventually, the final product ended up being a webcast on the second day of Lunar New Year that included a lion dance, artmaking, storytime, cooking Lo Bak Go (traditional Chinese turnip cakes). Interspersed were also greetings from the “PAMily,” which is how Hernandez-Guerrero amicably referred to her colleagues. The online celebration ended with a violin performance by a junior at USC’s Thornton School of Music.

The most-watched segment of the celebration was a performance by Chinese chamber ensemble Melody of China. It attracted audiences hailing from all over the world, including Canada, the UK, etc., Hernandez-Guerrero said. “That’s one of the great things about these virtual events… people from all over the world can tune in,” she said.

Hernandez-Guerrero said her motivation to produce PAM’s Lunar New Year event was a response to the increased anti-asian racism and xenophobia during COVID-19. “Given the rise of anti-asian racism and xenophobia, we wanted to really create a space to celebrate these phenomenal and rich communities,” Hernandez-Guerrero said. She credits the PAM Education Department for putting on such a successful event in the midst of a pandemic.

Modified Lunar New Year celebrations were not just limited to the United States, though. Even Hong Kong, Michelle Au’s hometown, was not immune to the pervasive effects of the global pandemic. In normal circumstances, Au said that if she were home, she would play mahjong, have a traditional family dinner, eat lots of fish, and receive (real) red packets. This year, Au was in Los Angeles, but she did not miss much. In terms of aesthetics, Hong Kong was a far cry from its former glory.

Vivian Wong is an architect at Kohn Pedersen Fox Hong Kong and a designer of one of the local Lunar New Year installations. “Because of the government restrictions [implemented] before the New Year, people can only gather within [groups of] two,” she said. “The Chinese New Year flower market at Victoria Park almost got cancelled because of the pandemic, but luckily [it was] resumed because the vendors… already paid for the flowers,” Wong added. “This year there’s only like 20 stalls, but usually there would be 100.”

When Au said she “missed the vibe” of the Victoria Park flower market, one of the most famous Lunar New Year events in Hong Kong, she was referring to the original version with over 100 stalls. “Half of it was food, and [the other was] merchandise or like things like mattresses… or like kitchen items,” Au said. “I really like how they would set [the decorations] up… it was really tall over all these stalls,” she added.

Those decorations are what Wong has worked on for the past half year, and they were supposed to be displayed for all of Hong Kong to see. Wong’s team of four architects won a design competition organized by The Hong Kong Institute of Architects in September 2020. When Wong won, the institute stated that “the winning design will be built for the Lunar New Year Fair to welcome hundreds of thousands of visitors.”

The mockups were built four months later with “[many strands of] 20 millimetre thick rope with an ox bell at the end. “The design combines the Year of the Ox and the “traditional gateways in Chinatowns when you go to different countries,” she added.

Eventually, Wong’s team came to an agreement with the Hong Kong government to postpone the display until the next year when there would be more visitors to the fair. “Unfortunately that gate became the COVID test station… like a security check,” Wong said. It was just “a galvanised steel scaffold.” Nonetheless, the flower market was held, albeit at a smaller scale.

While recalling Lunar New Year celebrations in Hong Kong, Michelle Au said “I do miss the festiveness of it all,” but as Los Angeles and Hong Kong both enter the Year of the Ox, festivities such as PAM’s Lunar New Year webcast and Hong Kong’s Victoria Park flower market are a refreshing reminder that there is still room for celebration even amid a global pandemic.

Correction March 2: A previous version of this story didn’t include the dateline.