Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Chinese in U.S. enjoy cultural tradition

First Published: Unity, Vol. 3, No. 4, February 15-28, 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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In mid-February the streets of Chinatowns all across the country will come alive with the burst of firecrackers, signaling the start of Chinese New Year, the first day of the new lunar calendar. For the Chinese national minority in the U.S., the holiday is a way to continue a centuries old cultural tradition.

The roots of Chinese New Year go back to ancient times when people measured time according to the lunar calendar to determine the cycles for planting and harvesting. Each year is assigned an animal sign according to a 12-year repeating cycle. This is the year of the Monkey, symbolizing cleverness, skillfulness and flexibility.

To prepare for the festivities, the whole house is cleaned thoroughly and decorated with freshly picked plum blossoms which represent hope and longevity. Couplets expressing good wishes are written on special red paper and hung on the front door to greet visitors. Many special foods are prepared for the occasion, such as jin doy – a doughy pastry that swells when fried, signifying the expansion of good luck.

Chinese New Year is a family holiday – a time to visit friends and relatives. Small baskets of tangerines and oranges symbolizing wealth and good fortune are exchanged. Children and young adults receive lai see (money wrapped in red envelopes). The festivities end with a lantern festival and lion dance to bring good luck to the new year.

Chinese New Year in the U.S.

Chinese New Year has been celebrated in the U.S. ever since the Gold Rush days, but it was not as joyous as it is today in the Chinese communities. For nearly 100 years, the Chinese community in the U.S. was primarily male workers. Unlike other immigrants who were allowed to bring families, the Chinese immigrants were mostly contract laborers brought to serve as a cheap, mobile labor force. Numerous restrictive immigration laws prevented the immigration of women and children. It was not until after World War II, when immigration restrictions were partially lifted, that families became a prominent part of Chinatown.

Today, many aspects of Chinese New Year are celebrated by the Chinese national minority in the U.S. These festivities enable Chinese families to celebrate an important part of their heritage and give Chinese Americans an opportunity to experience their culture firsthand.

In past years, students in the Chinese communities have demanded that the school system recognize Chinese New Year as a school holiday to be marked with special observances. Fighting for this demand expresses the desire for full equality of the Chinese national minority, whose culture, language and traditions have been suppressed due to national oppression.

Chinese New Year means more than a flashy parade put on by the large Chinatown businesses to drum up the tourist trade. It is a time to bring out the true richness of Chinese culture and to reflect upon the heritage of Chinese people in the U.S.