A Fowl Year to Wed?
From reserving a banquet room at a highly coveted Chinese restaurant to ordering the three-layer wedding cake with pink icing, Daniel Ha made sure everything was perfect on his wedding day.
But perhaps the most important detail was planned in consideration of his tradition-minded Chinese parents: He got married before the upcoming Chinese New Year.
That’s because the Year of the Rooster, which starts Wednesday, features a lunar anomaly: It lacks a day that marks the beginning of spring, known in Chinese as lichun. Spring symbolizes new beginnings and passion, believed in Chinese custom to lead to a heartfelt union and many children.
For the superstitious, the Rooster year is an ominous time to tie the knot. In parts of China, newspapers have been breathlessly reporting tales of couples rushing to get married before the so-called “widow year” begins.
But in the large Chinese American communities of the San Gabriel Valley, the “year of the widow” poses something of a dilemma for young couples, many of whom are skeptical about the superstitions but don’t want to offend their elders who do believe.
“Next year is not a good year to get married,” said Ha, 42, dressed in a black suit and tie as he greeted friends and relatives just after the nuptials Jan. 22.
Ha’s 77-year-old mother, Helen Ha, was more adamant, saying loudly in Cantonese: “Next year? Very bad!”
Her son smiled, resigned to the fact that his wedding was equally about pleasing his parents as himself. “I’m easygoing,” he said. “I just went along with them.”
The traditional Chinese calendar consists of a repeating 12-year cycle of animal signs.
Some lunar superstitions have been widely embraced in the Chinese American community, perhaps none more famously than the desire to have a child born in the Year of the Dragon. (The last one roughly coincided with the year 2000.) The highly revered dragon is believed to confer a lucky, powerful and extremely talented child. Hospitals from the San Gabriel Valley to Orange County reported a surge in Chinese babies born that year, with some mothers even asking to have labor induced.
But so far, reaction to the “year of the widow” has been decidedly muted. Although Ha and some others are grudgingly going along, for the most part the immigrant community has decided this is one superstition it can afford to ignore.
“It’s like how Americans say, ‘Don’t go out on Friday the 13th,’ but nobody’s really going to stay in that night,” said Brenda Chan, who runs Promise Wedding Studio in Temple City’s bridal district, where business has remained steady.
Indeed, some young Chinese Americans say ignoring the “year of the widow” is akin to taking a stand against what they consider embarrassing rituals.
Henry Wang is getting married Feb. 12, three days after Chinese New Year, because he says he’s too “Americanized” to “live my life according to the Chinese calendar.”
“I just don’t care,” said Wang, 27, who works at his family-owned Lucy’s Bridal & Photography in Temple City. “Feb. 12 was convenient for us.”
Whether a tradition from China survives in the U.S. depends a lot on practicality and whether the custom advances the Chinese community’s interests, said Xiao-huang Yin, chair of the American studies department at Occidental College.
“Some traditions work because they help Chinese Americans maintain their ethnic identity in [a] new environment,” Yin said. “Other traditions don’t work because this is a very fast-paced society.”
Customs such as celebrating Chinese New Year for a full 15 days or maintaining Taoist shrines with burning incense have fallen by the wayside. Other superstitions are so ingrained in the culture -- such as the affection for the number eight -- that many find themselves subconsciously following them or parting with money to satisfy them in the form of license plates, for example.
Chinese immigrants have a long history of preserving traditions to help maintain their cultural identity, especially in times of hardship. To protest xenophobic laws in the U.S. a century ago, Chinese men refused to cut off their long queues as a show of unity, even though the pigtail hairstyle had long been unfashionable in China.
Yin, who is still debating whether to cancel a weekly lecture on the day of Chinese New Year, says he has watched as new Chinese American colleagues arrive at his department and take issue with the location of their office doors as per the rules of feng shui -- a belief that the placement of objects and buildings affects the flow of positive and negative energy.
Yin said large meals and dragon dances on Chinese New Year have endured for so long in the U.S. because they boost the tradition’s festive quotient and, in turn, bring more families together. “Like Thanksgiving and Christmas put together,” Yin said.
But the effect of the “year of the widow” may lie somewhere in between.
“A lot of Chinese Americans are not going to believe in the widow year,” Yin said. “They’re too pragmatic. Some traditions are too complicated.”
This holds true especially for members of the younger generations, many of whom would have ignored the warnings of the lunar calendar had someone older not cautioned them otherwise.
Daniel Lam, 30, has lived in the United States for 13 years. He was married Nov. 21 at a church in Covina and feted at a banquet for 300 guests. Why Nov. 21? Because his parents said so.
“I had no idea that this was not a good year to get married,” Lam said of the upcoming year. “My parents chose the date a year ago.”
Only later did his parents tell him they picked the date so he’d be married before the Year of the Rooster.
Although Lam laughs off his parents’ concerns, he knows it could have been worse. His 24-year-old cousin in Hong Kong is not allowed to marry her fiance until the next Chinese New Year, in 2006.
“My cousin said over e-mail that she’s OK with the decision but her fiance is much angrier,” said Lam, who owns a women’s clothing company in El Monte.
Now that he’s married, Lam is encouraged to participate in handing out “lucky money” in red envelopes known as lai si. It’s a time of year children and unmarried young adults look forward to, often to help purchase the toy or electronic gadget they’ve longed for.
Lam, a former beneficiary of the tradition, now finds himself on the other side.
“That one I don’t feel too good about,” he said. “My younger sister is expecting a big envelope. But we’ve already spent too much on the wedding.”
Like Lam, Ha never considered himself superstitious or old-fashioned. Though he was born in Vietnam, Ha spent time in France and the last 15 years in California. Traditions such as feng shui are beyond him. The only thing he said he considers traditional Chinese about himself is his relationship with his parents. And that’s why he went along with the rushed wedding.
“I believe in taking care of your parents,” Ha said. “You have to respect the elders.”
In December, Ha and his then-girlfriend of three years, Cherin Lee, decided on a whim to get married soon. Initially, they wanted a no-frills event at someone’s home, to save money for traveling. Whether they wed before or after Chinese New Year was not even discussed.
“We told the parents and they jumped,” said Ha. “They said we had to have a Chinese reception and we had to rush.”
Ha’s parents consulted the Chinese calendar to see which day their son and his fiancee should marry. They also took into account the couple’s zodiac animal signs. Wanting a date before Chinese New Year, Ha’s parents settled on Jan. 22.
Ha’s sister, Vivian Ha, flew in from Montreal for the event. She said the family was relieved to hold the wedding nearly three weeks before Chinese New Year.
“It’s very important,” she said. “It will bring good luck to our family. Maybe they’ll have many children.”