Enter the Buffalo : Vietnamese Community Celebrates Its New Year

Times Staff Writer

The pageantry, entertainment and cuisine of a traditional Tet festival drew thousands of Vietnamese refugees to a Santa Ana park Saturday in a nostalgic cultural celebration marking the beginning of the Asian lunar calendar's Year of the Buffalo.

Blue-robed celebrants chanted prayers to Vietnamese ancestors in an opening procession that concluded with smoke from a burning prayer scroll billowing heavenward past flags of the United States and South Vietnam.

Mingling in the crowd, which numbered roughly 4,000 through much of the day, were women in brilliant yellow, pink or blue floral-patterned ao dai --the traditional dress slit from the waist on both sides and worn over trousers--as well as teen-agers with fashionable punk hairdos, babies in fancy lace outfits and elderly gentlemen in suits and ties.

Back to Celebrating

"Since 1975, I've never celebrated the New Year until today," said Nguyen Lien Thuy, 30, a San Francisco resident who fled Vietnam a decade ago and came to Orange County this weekend to visit relatives. "I heard they have the festival here, so I came. It's not exactly the same festival we had back home . . . but it brought back the atmosphere of New Year."

Thuy was with her sister, June Lewis of Long Beach, who left Vietnam in 1963, when she was 20.

"For me personally, it reminds me of my roots and brings me a lot of joy," said Lewis, an English teacher at an adult school in Cerritos. "It's good to remember your origins."

The weekend-long event at Centennial Regional Park in Santa Ana, sponsored by the Union of Vietnamese Student Assns. of Southern California, has been held annually in recent years. Although Wednesday is actually the first day of the lunar New Year, organizers scheduled the festival for Saturday and today to avoid holding it on a work day.

Holding a big Tet celebration "really helps tremendously" as refugees seek to cope with homesickness, said Tony Lam, president of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce in Orange County.

"This kind of festival reminds them a lot of home," he said. "I think this is a good boost for their morale."

The opening procession--which organizers said was symbolically the most important part of the festival--featured offerings of oranges, grapes, papaya, grapefruit and pears that were placed together with burning incense on an ancestral altar.

The leader of the ceremony then read a prayer, which Tran Minh The, president of the student association sponsoring the event, later explained was "to show respect to our ancestors."

The prayer scroll was burned to "send the smoke to fly to heaven, because we believe strongly that the souls of our ancestors are now in heaven with God," The said.

Santa Ana Vice Mayor P. Lee Johnson gave event organizers a mayoral proclamation declaring Saturday "Tet Festival Day."

'Pleased and Honored'

"We are very pleased and honored that you have chosen our city for this most important festival," Johnson told the crowd.

Then, as unicorn dancers took their positions in the grass in front of the stage, workers set off three massive sets of firecrackers that exploded in an ear-splitting roar, sending a cloud of smoke and shreds of red paper into the air. Festival officials ritually shook open the eyelids and mouth of the unicorn, and the two young men hidden inside set the mythological beast into motion.

At one point, the unicorn--comprising a gigantic head and a body of red, blue, yellow and green satin--climbed onto a table to dance, giving a better view to more distant viewers in the crowd. Paired in dance with the unicorn was the jolly character of "The Earth"--symbolic of good luck and happiness--performed by a man wearing a mask with an exceedingly happy face.

Drum beats provided lively accompaniment, but a young man in the crowd said he considered it "insulting" to the Vietnamese community that local officials had not allowed the use of firecrackers throughout the unicorn's dance.

Firecrackers Kind of a Dud

When student association leader The was later asked about the spectator's comment, he said that many in the crowd surely were disappointed at the paucity of firecrackers, because of their great importance in the tradition of Tet.

"In Vietnam, people play with firecrackers at least two weeks," The said. "On the first three days of the new year, on the streets of villages, you always hear firecrackers, day and night. . . . The firecrackers show good luck, and joy and happiness for the people. . . . But here, we cannot do it because of the Fire Department. We hope that next year we can arrange with the Fire Department to let us do firecrackers the whole day, because this is a very important Vietnamese custom."

Many other attractions also competed for attention.

Booths surrounding the festival area offered a variety of Vietnamese dishes, such as du du bo kho , made of shredded green papaya, beef jerky and a spicy sauce, or dau do banh lot , a dessert made of red beans, tapioca, coconut milk, sugar and ice.

'Ban Co Meatballs'

Many booths displayed familiar names, such as one called Cho Phu Nhuan , the name of a famous market in a suburb of Saigon. A stall called Bo Vien Ban Co-- or "Ban Co Meatballs"--sold the meatballs associated with Saigon's Ban Co district.

Artists displayed their works, and companies in businesses ranging from real estate to cosmetics set up booths. Artificial sprigs of peach and apricot blossoms--which bloom this time of year in Vietnam and are symbols of the New Year--were displayed for sale and also provided a backdrop for family picture-taking.

Volleyball and chess tournaments got under way, and groups performed rock music and traditional folk songs. A man in a black buffalo suit, symbolic of the New Year, wandered through the crowd much as Mickey Mouse does at Disneyland.

Although the vast majority of festival-goers were Vietnamese, other faces were scattered through the crowd.

Different World

"I came with my two daughters, Misty and Natalee, 8 and 5, respectively," said Lee Mallory, a Newport Beach resident who teaches courses in English as a second language at Santa Ana College and has many Vietnamese students. "I thought it would be a great cultural experience for them, because they move in a slightly different world in Newport Beach.

"They hear about my very important students and the work I value so much . . . and so today, they finally get to bridge that gap and see the people, meet my students and see the wonderful cultural diversity that brings people together in Orange County. Orange County is truly an international place. Today is important because it provides a common meeting ground."

Organizers said they expected about 15,000 people to pass through the gates by Saturday's 10 p.m. closing time. The festival resumes today at 10 a.m. and ends at 9 p.m.

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