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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, January 31, 2002

Hawai'i keeps Chinese ways at new year's

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

The lion dances and explosions of firecrackers in Honolulu's Chinatown were unlike anything that Quinghong Wong had ever seen during Chinese new year's celebrations back home in Beijing.

Lucky charms and decorations abound in Chinatown at this time of year as the Chinese community prepares to welcome the Year of the Horse on Feb. 12. The tradition has remained largely unchanged in Honolulu for 200 years.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

The chorus of gongs and firecrackers to chase away evil spirits and the sight of people everywhere dressed in red — the color of blood, or life — was all new to Wong when he arrived in Hawai'i two years ago. Wong, 25, grew up with a more somber celebration in China, usually capped with the family watching hours of dance, musical presentations and opera on television.

He didn't realize that for more than 200 years Honolulu's Chinese community had been preserving Chinese new year's traditions nearly perfectly in a cultural time capsule.

"Here you go to Chinatown and the people celebrate new year's very differently from the people in Beijing, with the lion dances and fireworks," said Wong, a political science student at the University of Hawai'i. "I never saw such kind of dancing before, and fireworks are banned in many cities. Here the culture is more traditional.... I was surprised. And happy."

The arrival of the Chinese new year, based on the 30-day lunar calendar, will be observed this year on Feb. 12. It will be surrounded by celebrations that trace their roots to the southern province of Zhong Shan, said Sen-Dou Chang, a UH geography professor from the Eastern Chinese town of Hangzhou.

 •  Chinese new year's events


23rd annual "Night in Chinatown," 9 a.m.-11p.m., presented by Chinatown Merchants

Association. Maunakea Street between Hotel and King streets will be closed to traffic, and food and craft booths will line the streets. A parade from the State Capitol down Hotel Street into Chinatown will begin at 4 p.m.

Feb. 8-9

Chinatown New Year Celebration, presented by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce at the Chinese Cultural Plaza. On Feb. 8, at 5-11 p.m., portions of Nu'uanu Avenue, Beretania Street and River Street will be closed to traffic. All activities on Feb. 9, noon to 11 p.m., will be at the Chinese Cultural Plaza.

Feb. 10

Non-Religious Vietnamese Tet Celebration: 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Kapi'olani Park, presented by Vietnamese community groups.

Tet Vietnamese Service: 4:30-7:30 p.m., Harris United Methodist Church, 20 South Vineyard Blvd., with the Rev. Thach Huynh presiding. Food will be served.

Feb. 17

Vietnamese Catholic Community Tet Celebration, 11 a.m.-

3 p.m., McCoy Pavilion. Mass, food and entertainment.

Seventy-five percent of Hawai'i's Chinese community are descendants of people from Zhong Shan, Chang said, and "for hundreds of years they have preserved the traditions in Hawai'i, to a large extent."

With one twist. Fifty-three years ago the Hawai'i celebration added what has become the Narcissus Festival Queen Pageant.

Today's differences in celebration between Honolulu and much of the rest of China can be attributed to time, cultural changes and political pressures, said Cindy Ning, associate director for the Center for Chinese Studies at UH.

While Honolulu's celebrations remain intact, different regions in China continued to adapt to changing times, Ning said. Big cities such as Beijing have outlawed fireworks because of fire and health problems, she said. And many cultural icons have been discouraged by Communist leaders "who don't like tradition," Ning said.

Honolulu's Chinese community is hardly alone in continuing the customs, Ning said.

"People from China and Taiwan often comment that traditional cultures get sort of fixed overseas, frozen in time," she said. "People's ancestors left China and brought a set of customs with them that haven't really changed."

All of which can make Chinese new year's in Honolulu something of a cultural shock to people such as Chenshan Tian, 55, who came to Honolulu from Beijing in 1987.

In China, the arrival of the new year is called the Spring Festival and is perhaps the most important celebration of the year. Tian is used to a more subdued seven days of family-oriented customs.

"Here lion dances go to every store in Chinatown, where they get tips," Tian said. "That doesn't happen in China."

Chang saw his first new year's celebration in Chinatown 32 years ago, and experienced things that had died out long ago back home.

In the 32 years since, new year's festivities have continued to evolve in China.

But in Honolulu, Chang said, "nothing's changed much since."

Reach Dan Nakaso at dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8085.