- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 25, 2006

When the thousands of people expected to turn up for Washington’s celebration of the Chinese lunar new year pack the streets of Chinatown on Feb. 5, they’ll see an old and popular spectacle played out, a celebration of Chinese traditions and time-honored ways in an increasingly contemporary setting.

Sponsored for 28 years by the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA), a national umbrella organization founded in the mid-1850s to help immigrants in the first large influx of Chinese to America, the parade is set this year for one week after the true lunar new year, Jan. 29.

It will wind its way through the streets of Chinatown, and parts of the commercially surging new downtown, against a familiar backdrop — all that is enduring in Chinese-American culture.

“The best thing to compare it to is Thanksgiving,” says Yeni Wong, who has chaired the New Year’s celebration and parade many times for the CCBA, which in Washington includes at least 30 Chinese organizations with its headquarters in Chinatown, under the chairmanship of James Wang.

“It’s a time for family, which is a very important thing for all Chinese people. Chinese people travel on that day to be with family, the offspring going to the homes of the parents,” Ms. Wong says.

Lion and dragon dancers, acrobats and flag bearers, school bands, folk dancers and marchers will pass tourists, Chinatown residents and visitors and a crowd that will include many ethnic Chinese whose telephone area codes read 703 and 301, identifying them as suburbanites from Maryland and Virginia.

The parade will flash through a downtown that looks very much like a classic Chinatown. Most of its stores and streets and signs are bilingual, identifying the neighborhood.

The Chinatown Gateway Arch at Seventh and H streets Northwest, erected in 1986 and the world’s largest single-span Chinese arch, still looms as an entrance to a block dense with Chinese and Asian restaurants.

And, almost squarely in the middle of the street one might dub “restaurant row,” is the newly installed Chinatown Community Cultural Center in Suite 201 at 616 H St. NW, on this day using its new space to mount displays about the traditions, foods, practices and meanings of Chinese New Year’s celebrations.

The new center, formally unveiled earlier this month at a crowded gathering of dignitaries, Chinese-American community leaders, city council members and regional elected officials, is meant to be a focal point for the local and regional Chinese community when it officially opens for business, possibly in the spring. It means to showcase and celebrate Chinese traditions and Chinatown’s history.

• • •

Chinatown, as most Washingtonians know it, is a product of the 1930s, when development of the Federal Triangle between Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues and 15th Street Northwest displaced the Chinese immigrants who lived there.

Yet even today Chinatown is changing. The parade occurs in a booming downtown whose landscape is dramatically different from what it was 10 or 15 years ago.

The neighborhood’s signs are bilingual, the result of an agreement between the Chinatown Steering Committee and the District government in the 1980s, and they are meant to identify Chinatown as a unique ethnic community. Yet especially along Seventh Street, they provide Chinese-language translations of signage touting distinctly American enterprises like Starbucks, Fuddruckers, Legal Seafood, Ruby Tuesday and Hooters.

The Washington convention centers, old and new, the MCI Center and new developments such as Gallery Place — a mixed-use project with more than 1 million square feet of office, retail, residential and entertainment space — have transformed and overshadowed Chinatown.

Amid the boom, Chinatown itself has shrunk somewhat as many residents have left for the suburbs; the Chinese population is estimated at 600 to 800 people, and it skews older for the most part.

Many traditionally Chinese community businesses have disappeared, most notably the Da Hua market on H Street, between Seventh and Sixth streets Northwest. The owner sold the building last year. It now houses the mayoral campaign headquarters for Ward 5 Council member Vincent Orange.

The restaurants, on the other hand, have obviously benefited from the commercial spurt almost everywhere in the downtown area, but especially along the Seventh Street corridor, by the MCI Center and farther on toward Pennsylvania Avenue itself.

With the new Convention Center and the MCI Center, new hotels such as the Hotel Monaco at 700 F St. NW, museums such as the International Spy Museum and the soon-to-reopen National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of American Art, and development projects like Gallery Place, Chinatown has become part of a larger destination site.

Jack Evans, since 1991 city councilman for Ward 2, which includes Chinatown, has been to every New Year’s parade since he was elected to the office and has seen the changes over the years.

“When I was elected to the council, I’d have to say the neighborhood was in some disrepair. It wasn’t safe at night, and there wasn’t the kind of commercial, lively atmosphere that’s here now,” he says.

With the support of community leaders — principally restaurateurs Tony Cheng and Linda Lee — a police substation was brought in, the sidewalks were bricked and other improvements made, he says. And he believes that in spite of the infringing development, Chinatown will retain its spirit.

“I think the parade and the New Year’s celebration and the Cultural Center will keep up the traditions of the community identity,” Mr. Evans says.

• • •

The lunar new year celebration and parade is a distinctly popular Washington and Chinatown event. It is splashy tradition in living color, even given the relatively small area where the paraders will march.

For visitors, the spectacle is a way to see a culture on display. For the Chinese, it’s a reminder of traditions and an ancient civilization. This may be the Year of the Dog, but it’s also the beginning of year 4703, a time for not just a parade but for family, food and honoring tradition.

Jeanny S. Ho, a co-chairman of this year’s celebration and a past chairman of the event, says the Chinese New Year festivities are a time when the emphasis is on the family unit.

“That’s always the hallmark of Chinese culture,” she says. “Everything that’s done during the course of the New Year’s is a reflection of family in Chinese culture.”

Stephanie Cheng, 24, a spokeswoman for the Chinatown Community Cultural Center — and daughter of Chinatown restaurateur Tony Cheng, whose Mongolian and Seafood restaurants at 619 H St. NW have long served as a neighborhood focal point — is a first-generation American who will celebrate Chinese New Year in the traditional manner.

“The whole family will gather in the restaurant for a dinner along with the employees,” she says. “My sister will be coming from Los Angeles with her new baby, and my brother and I and my parents will be there. It’s always been a tradition for our family.

“Last year, because my sister just had her baby, I went out to Los Angeles, and it felt strange not to be with the whole family.”

• • •

Lunar new year is exactly that: It begins with the second new moon after the winter solstice (with that new moon rising on Sunday this year) and, after a 15-day spring festival, ends with the full moon (on Feb. 13 this year). The period is characterized by activities rooted in Chinese culture, tradition, history and myth.

That means this Saturday is lunar New Year’s Eve. It’s marked with the same enthusiasm Westerners reserve for the night, but with a different emphasis.

“You start with New Year’s Eve and a reunion dinner. That’s when all of the family gets together,” Ms. Ho says. “It’s a big dinner, but fish is the primary dish and the main course.”

Fireworks displays send out the old year, welcome the new and — importantly — ward off potentially negative spirits.

Tradition calls for a general housecleaning before New Year’s Day. On that day, according to folklore, brooms, dusters or any sort of cleaning equipment cannot be used, because good fortune might be swept away in the process. An elaborate set of rules governs cleaning and dusting.

On the festival’s first day, families gather together and the children and younger, unmarried members are given red envelopes, usually containing a small amount of money so they can buy gifts for the holiday..

The seventh day is called the Common’s Man’s Birthday because, tradition has it, that’s the time when everyone grows a year older.

The 15-day period is also a great time for feasting, and besides traditional fish and chicken dishes, includes such specialties for the period as jiaozi (dumplings), yu sheng (a raw fish and vegetable salad), mandarin oranges, and fa gao or prosperity cake.

Many of the dishes associated with New Year’s also have special meanings. Mandarin oranges, for instance, are a symbol of wealth. Red jujube fruits suggest prosperity. The Chinese word for “fish” sounds the same as the Chinese word for “surplus,” and uncut noodles traditionally symbolize longevity.

It’s a time to visit friends and in-laws, and a time for employers to be kind to their employees. It is a time to recapture the spirit of sociability, the connectedness of generations. Sometimes, the New Year’s dinner includes a religious ceremony honoring ancestral members of the family. A lantern festival ends the 15-day celebration.

Ms. Wong, the former chairman of the CCBA’s celebration and parade, grew up in Taiwan and remembers the New Year’s doings with a touch of nostalgia.

“It was a time of happy occasions, people visiting each other, the red envelopes, the cleaning, all of that,” she says.

• • •

The parade, of course, is full of traditional ingredients, including the dragon and lion dancers.

The dragon dance requires 50 persons, students from various schools, to carry the sticks and move them, Ms. Ho says. Another 50 students will be there to substitute. The lion dance is smaller.

“Every year we have 10,000, 20,000 or 30,000 people who come for the parade,” she says. “Many tourists, of course, but also many people from the Washington suburbs, Chinese people who live in the suburbs.”

Although she and her family live in Arlington, Ms. Ho — who works for the Edison Electric Institute on Pennsylvania Avenue in Penn Quarter — knows Chinatown inside out, what’s there and what isn’t, and is quick to explain the sights to any visitor.

“There are groups that are made up of people with particular surnames,” Ms. Ho says, standing on H Street Northwest just past the Gateway Arch. She points to a building with large gold Chinese characters. “That is the office of a group made up of people with the surname of Lee.”

Restaurants are still Chinatown’s brightest lights, among them Tony Cheng’s with its dominating sign, China Doll, the smartly named Wok ‘N’ Roll, and a host of others, some offering very reasonable dim sum lunch prices.

Yet many familiar for years can’t be found now. Hunan Chinatown at 624 H St. NW, owned by Linda Lee and her husband, Dr. Toon Lee, closed in March last year. The Golden Palace, once at 720 Seventh Street NW, closed in 1998.

Yeni Wong, who runs her own real estate development firm, owned the Golden Palace for a number of years.

“It just got too expensive in terms of the lease,” she says. “But it was very popular; it did very well. It was a mainstay on that street.”

La Tasca, a Spanish tapas bar and restaurant, now stands at 722 Seventh St.

Ms. Wong sees the parade and the celebration as a way for the Chinese community to showcase itself.

“All of us in the community can work together on this,” she says. “It’s a festive occasion but its also about traditions and preserving culture.”

• • •

That is also what the fledgling Chinatown Community Cultural Center is about, or will be. A longtime dream of the Chinatown Steering Committee — whose president and chairman is Duane Wang, a 50-year Chinatown resident dubbed the unofficial mayor of Chinatown — the center is a part of the Gallery Place project. An arrangement with the project’s developer, Western Development, will allow it to use the space rent-free for 30 years.

Its successful kickoff is almost a direct result of community involvement in downtown development and planning.

“What the center will be about,” says Ms. Cheng, a center secretary and spokeswoman, “is a place where the community can gather, where we will hold art exhibitions or performances of theater or music, and a place hopefully where Chinese artists can exhibit their work. It will be about the history and traditions of this community, of Chinatown, and of Chinese culture.”

That is, just like the parade in this unique community that remembers its roots even as it grows.

WHAT: Chinese Lunar New Year parade

WHERE: Starts at headquarters of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, 510 I St. NW (Sixth and I streets Northwest). Follows route shown on map to end at Sixth and H streets Northwest. Showmobile with entertainment at Sixth and H streets.

WHEN: 1:30-4:30 p.m. Feb. 5

INFORMATION: Call the CCBA at 202/508-5438.

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