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How the daughter of Chinese-Vietnamese immigrants celebrates Lunar New Year

  • Wendy Chung's mother Laura lays out food at the altar for their ancestors on the eve of Chinese New Year. Photo by Wendy Chung.

  • Wendy Chung and her family burn incense at the Buddhist temple on the first day of Lunar New Year. Photo by Wendy Chung.

  • Wendy's parents give her niece a red envelope for Chinese New Year, a ritual that's like giving gifts to children on Christmas. Photo by Wendy Chung.

  • Wendy Chung at WAPOW magazine's launch on Feb. 10. Photo by Phoenix Tso.

Location

Alhambra , CA United States

Wendy Chung grew up in Monterey Park, graduated from Schurr High School in Montebello and UCLA and USC, where she earned a Master’s in urban planning and public administration. She is is now the editor of WAPOW, Los Angeles Chinatown’s quarterly print magazine. Their sixth issue was released on Feb. 10. She has five siblings and her family emigrated from Saigon, Vietnam. We asked her recently about her recollections of Chinese New Year, which runs from Feb. 5 to Feb. 19 this year. Her mother Laura joined us for part of the conversation.

How do you celebrate Chinese New Year and what does it mean to you?

Wendy: My mom is the one that does all the rituals and we just follow her. And that’s how I’ve grown up with Chinese New Year. But more recently, I’ve observed her a lot more to try and pick up on some of what she does.

What happens on Chinese New Year Eve is at midnight, she will do her rituals, which consists of praying to the ancestors. On the morning of Chinese New Year, she will wake up and then my siblings and I will go and wish my parents the good wishes and then they’ll give us the red envelopes. Then we’ll go to the Buddhist temple and that happens every year.

Laura: In the hour before it’s officially Chinese New Year, I practice rituals known as bai-bai. I do various rituals involving praying to the ancestors.

What’s the meaning of giving red envelopes full of money?

Laura: We do this to make our children happy, to mark the new year with them, just like children in western culture get presents on Christmas.

Do you eat a certain type of food during Chinese New Year?

Usually, every year, before Chinese New Year, we have the big reunion dinner with our family. The foods that we eat usually have a lot of symbolism, because of the names. They’re usually homophones of things that mean good luck. So we have fish. I remember we used to have this one vegetable that looks like hair, because hair in Chinese sounds like “prosperity.” [laughs] And on the first day of Chinese New year, my mom will have vegetarian food in the daytime, because she refrains from eating meat — I’m not sure why. [Laughs]

Laura: Because the Buddhist gods only eat vegetarian, I won’t eat meat.

What do these rituals mean to you and how has the meaning evolved as you’ve grown up?

For me, it’s a big part of my cultural identity. When I was young, I would just do them because my mom told me to do them. But over time, she’s kind of lost a lot of — I guess — she doesn’t follow the traditions as strictly anymore. And I find that I kind of miss that stuff. That’s why I’ve been observing her more often and trying to figure out what will work for me in carrying on this tradition.

Do you have an example of something you’ve found that works for you?

I’ve been recording her a lot. I’ll take pictures and then I’ll write down what she does step-by-step. And then I’ll try to share it on Instagram or something so that if my sisters or anyone else wants to see it, then they can see it too. Moving forward, some things that are easy that I can do is going to temple and I’m trying to pick up on which gods she’s burning incense to and why, so those are the things that I’ve been trying to keep.

How much money have you gotten in your red envelopes?

It’s sort of grown as I was growing up. When I was really young, they were $2 per envelope and usually I got them from all of my family members who were older. And then as we got older, it would go up to $5 per year and then $10. It usually sticks around $10 and this year, because I started working with my parents, she gave me a bigger envelope. But it’s never really big. I’ve heard of friends who get thousands of dollars or hundreds of dollars, but ours usually sticks under $50.

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 Quincy Surasmith’s interview here.
Read Kenny Uong’s interview here.

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