Friday is the first day of Chinese New Year, a multi-day celebration marked by money-stuffed red envelopes, dragon imagery and, in the Southland, a flood of tourists from Asia.
For the first time, many local shopping centers are greeting the surge in potential customers with fanfare and parades dedicated to the Year of the Horse, festooning their courtyards with paper lanterns and hiring experts in traditional Chinese arts.
The hullabaloo over the holiday — also known as the Spring Festival or Lunar New Year — is a calculated move at many of those retail properties, designed to attract the region's vast and growing Asian presence into stores after a lackluster year for retail sales.
The Grove shopping center in Los Angeles' Fairfax district has erected a towering totem of red cloth and bamboo poles guarded by glittering representations of mythical Chinese beings. Through Sunday, the Sprinkles store there will sell red cupcakes with the image of a horse stamped onto a sugar medallion.
On Thursday, Annie Chow, 35, brought her son Michael Jacob, 2, and daughter Olivia, 4, to the shopping center specifically to see the calligraphy demonstration, drummers and lion dances planned for the day on the lawn. Dozens of adults and children crowded around a stage ringed by strollers.
Chow, a homemaker in the nearby Larchmont neighborhood, was pleased because the events were being held in a safe, confined space. The Grove benefited as well: Chow spent $50 on sweaters and a scarf from the Gap when the weather got chilly. And she said she planned to eat at the adjoining Farmer's Market.
"Part of the appeal is heritage, and it's also a fun thing to do," said Chow, who hopes to teach Mandarin and Cantonese to her children. "And it gets their peers who aren't Chinese to learn about the culture."
A six-day festival kicks off Friday at the Santa Monica Place mall with Chinese dragon dances, ribbon dancers, stilt walkers and food tastings. Musicians will play the bamboo flute, butterfly harp and long zither. Chinese henna tattoo artists will be at the ready.
A centrally placed wishing tree will be hung with red envelopes stuffed with wishes written by shoppers. Participating retailers will hand out free fortune cookies. The shopping center, which has never celebrated the holiday before, has also hired Mandarin-speaking staff members for the festivities.
Some 10% of tourist foot traffic into Santa Monica Place comes from Asian tourists, according to the mall's senior marketing manager Shoshana Puccia. The local Asian community is also substantial, she said.
"The hope is that by driving traffic, we ultimately attract sales," Puccia said.
A large God of Prosperity statue will stand guard through Feb. 16 at the Americana at Brand mall in Glendale. Each night, the fountain there will be colored red — considered a lucky hue in Asian cultures — and will spew water choreographed to "Give Me a Kiss" by Taiwanese pop singer Wan Fang.
On Saturday, the shopping center will host a parade with Chinese and Korean folk dancers and drummers. Children can make lanterns at free craft stations and have their faces painted. Calligraphy artists will give away paintings of horses and lucky Chinese characters on red diamond paper.
From Friday through Feb. 28, the Beverly Center mall is running an inaugural program of festivities and decorations, which include a wishing tree that's 16 feet tall and 14 feet wide. Customers who spend more than $500 in a day can get red envelopes stuffed with cards with more than $8,000 total in awards. Shoppers who make purchases with a China UnionPay bank card can get up to $50 in gift cards.
The Beverly Center estimates that 30% of its customers are tourists. General Manager Ralph Barnes said employees "continue to see growth within that number from Asian visitors, specifically Chinese."
"We've spared no expense," he said of the Chinese New Year plans, though he declined to say how much was spent. "It's not just something we're throwing together — it's a substantial investment."
And for good reason. During a 40-day period that began in mid-January, Chinese natives will take more than 3.62 billion trips, according to the Chinese government. That will involve more than 400,000 flights.
In the first four months of 2013 — the most recent data available — the Commerce Department said that 497,288 visitors from China traveled to the U.S. — a 23.6% increase from the same period a year earlier. From Taiwan, 104,933 headed to America, up 22.9%.
The Commerce Department predicts that the number of visitors into the country from Asia will boom 59% from 2012 by 2018. Travelers from China will boom 219% over the period — or 29% of total visitor growth.
But malls and retailers are also targeting the large group of Asians who reside in Southern California.
In Los Angeles County, 14.5% of the population in 2012 was Asian, not including mixed-race residents. Statewide, the figure is 13.9%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The county's Asian American population is the largest in the nation as well as its fastest growing, according to a September report from advocacy group Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles. The number of Asian Americans in the area surged 20% between 2000 and 2010, according to the report; by comparison, the Latino population grew 11%.
Converting the demographic into loyal shoppers could prove a boon to retailers trying to shake off a year of middling retail sales. The slowness has continued into January.
"The latest week's sales were battered by abnormally warm temperatures in the West and bitter cold and snow in the East," Michael Niemira, chief economist of the International Council of Shopping Centers, said in a statement this week.
The "unevenness" in sales caused the trade group to scale back its forecast for January revenue growth to 3% year over year from a previous estimate that was as high as 3.5%.
Many retail centers have worked for years to attract Chinese shoppers. Santa Monica Place is currently looking to hire a Mandarin-speaking concierge.
Last year, Desert Hills Premium Outlets, Ontario Mills and the Outlets at Orange partnered on a Snaking through Southern California initiative to mark the Year of the Snake and to attract Chinese shoppers. Westfield Santa Anita in Arcadia threw its first-ever Lunar New Year festival in 2013, with a 120-foot dragon installation above its indoor carousel.
The Beverly Center boasts of its Mandarin-speaking employees and its Chinese-language directories and maps. The mall put a page on its website dedicated to international tourism, written in seven languages including Mandarin, and in August it launched a profile on Sina Weibo, a microblogging service in China.
"As we monitor who's really coming and shopping, supporting these local retail markets, it's become apparent that it's worth taking notice of the Chinese in particular," said Barnes, the general manager.