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Alhambra City Council Member Katherine Lee talks Lunar New Year, fireworks, and celebrating in Alhambra

Photo by Bastian Mendez.

Location

Alhambra , CA United States

Alhambra City Council member Katherine Lee was born in Taiwan and came to the United States with her parents and sister in the mid-1970s. She graduated from Alhambra High School and teaches at Repetto Elementary School in Monterey Park for the Alhambra Unified School District. While a teacher, Lee was elected to the Alhambra City Council last November. She and her husband live in Alhambra. In an interview with the Alhambra Source she recalled her family’s celebration of the Lunar New Year, the family’s immigration to America, and reflected on how celebrating the holiday has changed since moving to the U.S.

What comes to mind when thinking about Lunar New Year?

I remember celebrating Chinese new year at my grandparents’ house in Taiwan. My grandparents had 13 children. I remember fireworks were always included. Only the children played with fireworks. Thinking back to my childhood, the fireworks that were given to us are probably illegal here, they were very potent and powerful. The traditional ones [we celebrated with are] on a long string, they look like the tip of a cigar, bigger than a cigarette. I bet they still sell traditional fireworks like those in Chinatown.

Are fireworks an important part of the Lunar New Year Celebration?

Fireworks are a huge part of Chinese New Year’s. This holiday and [at] weddings. In ancient days of China, getting married was considered a big event so they would celebrate by setting off fireworks as well. I may be wrong, but I believe that the lighting of fireworks is said to scare away evil spirits.

When your parents were in Taiwan, did they also celebrate Lunar New Years the same you did when you were a kid?

In Taiwan, yes. My mom cooked a lot of food. If I recall correctly, it’s usually in Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China where the celebration lasts for a whole month. How much we still retain that tradition now, I’m not sure. Alhambra had their festival last Saturday, Monterey park had it the Saturday before. We’re all celebrating within the range of festivities. Every year the Asian American Association sponsors a Lunar New Year banquet. The proceeds get donated to students, scholarships and other efforts.

How do you celebrate Lunar New Year today?

My family totally scaled back. On Lunar New Year eve we actually had hot pot at my house. Usually, the parents give the children a red envelope. Even though I’m not a small child anymore I still get red envelopes from my in-laws on occasion. But I remember in Taiwan we’d get that and our parents would save it for us or we’d use it to buy firecrackers.

When did you move to the U.S. from Taiwan?

76’. During that time there was a quota for Taiwanese immigrants, only so many could emigrate from Taiwan to U.S. You had to have a sponsor. So my parents came first without my sister and myself and we stayed with my aunt. That was the protocol, they had to come first as my uncle was their sponsor. And they stayed [in the U.S.] for a while…my dad stayed and my mom went back to Taiwan…eventually we were all in the states together within a year.

When we first moved here we came to Monterey park. I attended Ynez Elementary School. I enrolled in 7th grade and out of every 100 kids there [were] only about 10 Asians. It was very different in the 70s.

Did you celebrate LNY differently after you moved to the U.S. from Taiwan?

The first year we scaled back because we were immigrants and were more worried about assimilating to the U.S. I think we did celebrate but it was not the same. All of our relatives [were] back in Taiwan so we were separated. We were alone. My parents were pretty tough. I don’t remember celebrating LNY too much because we were by ourselves and I was probably old enough to not need firecrackers anymore.

Do you think that community is most important for LNY?

Usually it would be fun if you see things going on in the street. And because when we first moved here there weren’t that many Chinese or Asian businesses in the area. Today, we observe Lunar New Year Eve and my mom cooks special foods like rice cakes and maybe egg rolls. We would just have our own family Chinese New Year’s celebration. I don’t remember us going to any community events that would celebrate the holiday. We don’t go to Chinatown.

Did coming from Taiwan to the U.S. change the way you thought about LNY.?

Over the years I’ve realized that Chinese New Year’s is fun but it’s no longer that important because we no longer have a community that emphasizes that. I’m actually more into Christmas and Thanksgiving than Chinese New Year’s now because I’ve been here for so long. But I do observe it because my mom still observes it.

What does the holiday mean to you today?

It’s a reminder of my heritage. Where I come from. I think that immigrants that have lived here for a long time start to take in the culture that they’re immersed in. I think over time I became more aware of different cultures and even more appreciative of different cultures for their holidays. As a teacher too…as a teacher we have different ethnic groups. For Chinese New Year’s I gave all my students a red envelope with a gold chocolate coin inside. I think it’s a good thing because cities in this area are so multicultural and everyone gets to learn about each other’s cultural holidays.

What are you doing for LNY this year?

I just had my mom and my sister over and I made hot pot. We kind of celebrate but we do something totally different now, it’s just another reason to get together with the family. But if they go back to Taiwan for the holiday they have a big celebration.

Did you attend the Alhambra Chinese Lunar New Year festival?

The city council members and I were actually in the opening ceremony so I was there at 10 a.m. So we were there on stage, [Council member] Adele Andrade-Stadler introduced all of us and it started the whole ceremony there.

Find our other Lunar New Year coverage below:

View our Alhambra LNY Festival slideshow here.

Read Kenny Uong’s interview here.

Read Wendy Chung’s interview here.

Read Quincy Surasmith’s interview here.

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