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Feeling the tug of tradition

Times Staff Writer

When Lucy Huang was a child, she scoffed at the idea that she was supposed to be stubborn and aggressive just because she was born in the Year of the Tiger. She hated that her first-generation Taiwanese American parents made her go to Chinese school on Saturdays when all of her mostly non-Chinese friends got to play.

But this week, the 32-year-old commercial cookware executive is taking on the customs and rituals of the Chinese New Year with gusto.

She got a haircut before the new year instead of after, which would have symbolized clipping away the good luck. She cleaned her San Marino home so that she would not sweep out any good luck accrued after the new year. And she made a point not to argue with anyone so that no ill will would carry over to this Year of the Golden Boar -- which, the pregnant Huang eagerly points out, is supposed to be a doubly auspicious year to have a child.

Huang’s awakening to the Chinese traditions she once found embarrassing came through her job: running a culinary equipment company that required much travel to the factories near Shanghai.

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“It used to be that 95% of the people surrounding me were American,” Huang said. “Now it’s 95% Chinese because of my work. I started learning about their practices and their experiences. I gained a sense of identity.”

In most ethnic communities, the rituals and superstitions of the old country tend to fade as successive generations become more Americanized. But in the Chinese American community, something different is happening.

New meaning

China’s economic boom has lured many Chinese Americans into business back on the mainland. And along the way, some, such as Huang, are re-embracing age-old traditions such as Chinese New Year with a new sense of meaning.

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“In the past, a lot of second-generation and third-generation Chinese Americans kept their traditions because they were isolated from mainstream society,” said Yong Chen, a professor of history at UC Irvine. “Now they have a choice to become Americanized. But they’re seeing there are benefits associated with being Chinese because of the growth of the Chinese economy.”

Southern California is China’s leading two-way trading partner, accounting for $109 billion annually (including Hong Kong and Macao). The San Gabriel Valley is dotted with companies large and small trying to get rich by importing Chinese products into the United States.

There are untold numbers of “sea turtles” -- Chinese Americans who have traveled to their ancestral home in hopes of cashing in on China’s fortunes. A growing number of books teach Chinese rituals and customs, many aimed at businesspeople trying to relate to mainland culture.

Of course, there are still Chinese Americans who see the new year superstitions -- have a baby this year, don’t get married that year -- as silly throwbacks to Grandma. And others view the new trendiness of Chinese rituals as being fueled less by cultural appreciation than by a yearning to make money in China.

But it’s clear that a revival is taking place.

Keng Ong, who runs Wing Hop Fung, the leading Chinese herbal medicine emporium in the region, said he noticed an increase in young Chinese American customers just as China’s global profile surged.

Ong said younger Chinese Americans are interested in obscure medicinal delicacies -- and the meaning behind them -- normally popular only with older generations.

“They are people who never seemed like they touched the stuff before,” he said. “They come in with their parents, who do all the talking. They buy shark fins and mushrooms and black sea moss, birds nest and sea cucumber.”

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Trying to assimilate

Teddy Zee, a veteran Hollywood producer whose recent films include “The Pursuit of Happyness,” said he was taught by his parents, immigrants from Shanghai, that assimilation was the ultimate goal, and thus has spent most of his life surrounded by non-Chinese peers.

After leaving his boyhood home in upstate New York for good, Zee temporarily erased the memory of the Chinese traditions his parents had told him about.

“I had never in my life celebrated the Lunar New Year,” said Zee, 49.

The negation of his roots played out in the decisions he made while raising his children. Given the choice of sending his daughters to Chinese school or ballet, he chose ballet. One daughter is fluent in French, though he now wishes she were also fluent in Mandarin.

But Zee now spends two weeks out of every month in Asia. He has tapped into China in recent years, believing it to be the “final frontier” for Hollywood. He started a film company there that works with the Shaolin Temple, famed for its martial-arts monks. During a recent visit, Zee was taught how to pray with 6-foot-long incense sticks. The experience vividly reminded him of his late mother, a woman with bound feet who fled Mao Tse-tung’s Communist takeover half a century ago. He remembered how she started each day with Buddhist chants and the burning of incense.

“The last three years I have started embracing my heritage,” Zee said. “I’ve come out as a Chinese American.”

Childhood nostalgia

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Now, at least twice a month, he leaves his Hancock Park home for the San Gabriel Valley to dine on the Chinese food that makes him nostalgic for his childhood. He also attended two New Year’s dinners over the weekend -- even making sure he had red envelopes in which to give lucky money to youngsters.

“The world is a changing place, and there’s never been a better time to be Chinese American,” Zee said. “It’s been something good for me. But it’s also great for business.”

That’s what bothers some Chinese Americans.

Ryan Chan wonders how sincere many would be about the traditions had there not been a business incentive.

The 24-year-old grew up in San Gabriel. After college, he decided to go to a working-class city in northeastern China to teach English and learn about Confucian values.

“I didn’t see it as a job opportunity,” Chan said. “It was a chance to go there and explore my culture.” But some Chinese Americans who are discovering the old ways say it’s not just about money.

“I’ve begun to see being Chinese was unique to who I was,” said Aaron Jen, a freshman at Johns Hopkins University who was born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley. “I had sort of taken it for granted.”

Jen’s parents made him attend Chinese school since he was a young boy, but he never really mastered Mandarin.

Life-changing trip

Last summer, the 18-year-old visited Shanghai to meet friends and relatives. The visit, he said, changed him -- beginning an exploration of the culture. This year, he flew back from Baltimore for Chinese New Year’s even though he had only two nights back home in San Marino. It’s crucial that the eldest grandson spend the celebration with his grandmother.

Jen’s mother, Eva Jen, felt redeemed.

“I sent him to Chinese school since kindergarten and he didn’t get it,” she said. “Now he’s in his first year of college and guess what course he picks? Chinese.”

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david.pierson@latimes.com


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