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How a teenage public transport enthusiast celebrates Tết

The OC Tết Festival in Fountain Valley, Calif. features a replica of huts in a village in Vietnam, with tables and chairs for an outdoor cafe, yellow Mai and peach blossom flowers, conical and flat palm hanging hats, lanterns, firecrackers and a street vendor's bamboo frames at the bottom left. Photo by Kenny Uong.


Alhambra , CA United States

We continue our Lunar New Year interview series with Kenny Uong, a public transportation enthusiast who celebrates Tết, or the Vietnamese Lunar New Year with his family every year. His childhood in Glendale, Calif. consisted of going to temple and the OC Tết Festival with his parents, who emigrated from Saigon, Vietnam in 1998 and his older sister, who now lives in the Boston area. Since moving to the Los Angeles area, his family has relied completely on public transportation to get around, which motivated Uong to learn the entire Metro system by heart at five years old and to study urban planning at Cal State Northridge. He hopes to become a transportation planner. You can read about his adventures in commuting on Twitter and Instagram and learn more about his Tet rituals below.

What is involved in celebrating Tết? What traditions did you grow up with?

The celebration started on the 23rd day of the last month in the lunar calendar. We conduct a ceremony to send the kitchen god, which is called Tết Táo Quân in Vietnamese and means “to heaven” to report on the good and bad things that transpired in the household to the jade emperor (the king of all the gods in heaven).

On Lunar New Year Eve, around noon, my parents and I go in front of the altar at our house and ask departed relatives to come home and spend the three days of Lunar New Year with us. We have incense and candles. Lunar New Year’s Eve [is] usually a school night for me, so we turn on the TV and watch the live telecast of the Lunar New Year Eve celebration on the Saigon Television channel. It’s shown from the Huệ Quang Temple in Santa Ana, Calif. There’s music and firecrackers are going off. When the clock strikes at midnight, that’s when my family would say “Chúc Mừng Năm Mới,” which is Happy New Year in Vietnamese. We start singing a traditional Vietnamese Lunar New Year song called “Ly Rượu Mừng,” which roughly translates to “happy or joyful wine glass.” It’s about happiness for the new year and wishing everyone prosperity and good luck.

And on the morning of Lunar New Year’s Day, I would wake up, I would give my parents Lunar New Year wishes and in return I would receive a lucky red envelope full of money, which is one of my favorite traditions in Lunar New Year. We also visit relatives. They live in the Glendale/Burbank area, so we would go over there and exchange Lunar wishes and I would receive more red envelopes. We also have a Lunar New Year feast, bánh tét , cylindrical steamed rice cakes and it has mung bean and pork filling. It’s common in the southern region of Vietnam. There’s also steamed rice cake with the same filling but it’s a square shape, called bánh chưng and it’s common in the northern region of Vietnam. There’s also assorted candy fruits called mứt. It’s either candied coconut strips and soursop candies (soursop is a pulpy tropical fruit).

Do these foods have any special meaning?

I think the steamed rice cakes have a legend that goes along with it.

How much do you get in the red envelopes?

It varies. From my parents, it’s usually around $10 per envelope.

Do you celebrate New Year throughout the two weeks?

For us, it lasts for 10 days. In Vietnam, it also lasts for 10 days. The first Saturday of Lunar New Year, our family will take public transport down to Orange County for the OC Tết Festival.

Can you tell me more about the OC Tết Festival?

I know that in Orange County there are two main Tết Festivals. One is put on by the Vietnamese Student Association, college students, and that one is in Costa Mesa at the OC Fairgrounds. And the OC Tết Festival is more of a community one. That’s put on by the OC County Supervisor of the first district and that one is in Fountain Valley.

Do you feel closer to the Vietnamese community when you go to the festival?

I have a lot of fun talking to other Vietnamese people who are there celebrating. There’s also a Vietnamese village where people can take photos and it makes the festival attendees feel like they’re in a village in Vietnam. It’s really beautiful.

What do you get out of these rituals personally?

I believe it’s important to keep these traditions alive, when you’re far away from the homeland. My parents want to pass on those traditions, so I can pass them onto my children or later generations.

Upcoming Lunar New Year Festivals
Feb. 16 – City of San Gabriel Lunar New Year Festival
Feb. 16-17 – L.A. Chinatown Firecracker Run
Until Feb. 17 – Lunar New Year at Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood
Through the rest of February – Lunar New Year decorations, special offers and exhibits up at Westfield Santa Anita Mall in Arcadia.

Read Wendy Chung’s interview here.
Read Quincy Surasmith’s interview here.

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