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Alhambra seniors celebrate Lunar New Year with chicken adobo, curry, and tamales

Maribel Kemp was baking chocolate chip cookies in a small Otis Spunkmeyer oven when I sat down to talk to her. The Emeritus Senior Living life enrichment director had just finished organizing the resident facility's International Food Fair. Eight Chinese women click-clacked mahjong tiles in a contentious game just 6 feet from her desk. Nearby were remnants of a feast of chicken adobo, curry, and tamales — all in celebration of the Lunar New Year.

Seniors patiently await their food at Emeritus's International Food Fair.

While Alhambra’s official Lunar New Year celebration lasts only one Saturday, in China festivities go on for weeks. Adapting that custom for the United States, some local senior citizens are celebrating for 15 days.  

“China gives two weeks off for the New Year, but America is different. People have different lifestyles,” said Emeritus' Communications Relations Director, Katherine Yu. “Eighty percent of our residents are Asian seniors…And our seniors are very traditional. We want to celebrate their traditions.”

Chinese New Year celebrations are so important in China that this year an estimated 200 million Chinese will spend over a month traveling to visit family members. Although some of the residents at Emeritus said they will not receive family visits for the holiday, Kemp and Yu are hoping that celebrating the new year at Emeritus will remind their immigrant residents of home.

Maribel Kemp kicks off Emeritus's Lunar New Year celebration.

Emeritus’ International Food Fair on Feb. 7, the kick-off for its Lunar New Year celebrations, attracted contributions from a dozen sponsors, including Fortunate Bakery on Las Tunas, the Lincoln Plaza Hotel in Monterey Park, and GW Market in Downtown Los Angeles. “We have invited family relatives of our residents to come join us for our events,” Yu, who emmigrated from China to the U.S. at age 4, said.  “I thought it was just going to be a small thing but it blew up.”

Red and gold decorations surround the food, donated by half a dozen local sponsors.

Aside from the food festival, Kemp and Yu are also putting together a combination Valentine’s Day and Lantern Festival on Feb. 14, and bringing festivities to a nice — and loud — conclusion with a dragon dance on Feb. 21.

Resident Emma Wong — originally Lim YatLing —was more than full after the food fair. “I don’t know how to taste, I ate too much,” she said.

Seniors at Emeritus digging in.

Wong told me she was born to a destitute family in rural China. When she was 17, her parents arranged her marriage to a Chinese family friend who had served in the United States Navy during WWII. They moved to America in 1947 and opened up a supermarket in Lincoln Heights a few years later.

After her husband died in 2012, her children, who she said are very busy, thought it best to move her to Emeritus.

The senior center tries to cater to its elderly Asian residents. The majority of the staff and volunteers are fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese. They set up mahjong tournaments and trips to Pechanga Casino. But despite their efforts, it may still be a challenge for residents who are not used to living far away from family and friends.

“It was a pretty big cultural shock,” Kemp said about joining the assisted senior residence industry and watching residents move in. “We Asians are so used to taking care of our elderly at our own homes.” Kemp was a college professor in the Philippines, born and raised in Manila, before her career change in America.

Bill Wasson sat down next to me to join in the interview. He was raised in Olivet, Kansas, a town with a population of 67, according to the 2010 Census. He moved to San Gabriel following the loss of his family and eventually taught at Cal State Los Angeles, until he had to step down due to a stroke.

Wasson almost did not seem to notice the red and gold decorations that took over their community rooms. “Oh sure, I am used to multicultural situations,” he said.

Undeterred by Wasson and Wong's apparent lack of excitement, Kemp pleasantly reminded them of the dragon dance, a centuries old Chinese tradition tied in with the Lunar New Year which symbolizes luck, prosperity and potency. Of course, there will be lots of food to close out these 15 days of family remembrance and gratitude for the  gifts of previous years, and, hopefully, years to come.

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