Exit the Year of the Boar, enter the Year of the Rat. No, we're not talking about the presidential race. Today is Chinese New Year and several events will mark it this weekend (see Page 2). On Feb. 16, the celebration continues with the 17th annual Alhambra/San Gabriel Chinese New Year Festival (www.lunarnewyearparade .com), which presents a parade and booths along a five-block stretch of Valley Boulevard. The street, especially from Garfield to New avenues, is the heart of a commercial district that provides a window on Chinese culture any time of year.
COME HERE, MY LITTLE DUMPLING
One of the most important aspects of Chinese New Year involves food, specifically the consumption of dumplings. Why? The short answer is they're symbolic, because the Mandarin word for "dumpling" is similar to the word for "intersection," as "out with the old, in with the new." Suffice it to say you should eat some, and there's no shortage of options. One is Mei Long Village (301 W. Valley, No. 112,  284-4769), a Shanghainese restaurant where many folks come just for the pork- and crab-filled xiao long bao. Or Taiwanese street food purveyor Pa Pa Walk (227 W. Valley, No. 148-B,  281-3889), where there always seems to be a line for the shui jiao (boiled dumplings), plus "three cups" chicken, "stinky tofu" and mango shaved ice mountains.
MORE TASTES OF TRADITION
Old-school New Year's foods also include fish (which, in Mandarin, auspiciously sounds the same as "surplus," believe it or not), long noodles (symbolizing long life) and glutinous rice cake (we won't even try to explain this one). All this and more can be found at the Ranch 99 supermarket (140 W. Valley,  307-8899). For dessert, Phoenix Food Boutique,left, (31 E. Valley,  299-1918), with its heated patio, is dedicated to serving up treats, including warm bowls of black sesame paste. It might look like tar but it tastes sweet.
THREADING THE NEEDLE
New Year's tradition calls for the wearing of new clothes, preferably red, even down to your underwear. No worries, these days you can play fast and loose with the colors (and the price -- don't be afraid to bargain here). The Pacific Square strip mall, at Valley Boulevard and Garfield Avenue, has several small window-shoppable boutiques, such as trendy Zeemo ( 284-0931) and Brand Shop Paris ( 284-9998), which specializes in new and secondhand handbags. Maria's Fashion (134 E. Valley,  281-0080), for jeans snobs, is nearby.
SILVER AND GOLD (AND PLATINUM)
San Gabriel Focus Square (140 W. Valley), a.k.a. to outsiders as the Great Mall of China, offers opportunities to accessorize. Chong Hing Jewelers, below left, (No. 119,  280-9195) sells blinged-out watches, lighters and necklaces; Vision (No. 115,  288-8023) has equally flashy sunglasses (get your eyes checked by an optometrist too). Or browse the movies and CDs at Media King (No. 121,  288-7799) -- though good luck understanding the DVD covers if you can't read characters.
THROW THOSE TIRED DOGS A BONE
Doing things alone is anathema to most Chinese immigrants; time with family and friends is preferred. At Tibetan Herbal Feet Soak, right, (227 W. Valley, No. 218A,  968-9888) -- a pioneer in the area -- you can socialize with loved ones while giving yourself a little TLC. Sit in a recliner, plunge your feet into a bucket of hot, herb-infused water, then receive a pedi-pummeling that hurts oh, so good -- all while sipping tea, chatting with your neighbors and watching a film on the big-screen TV. Total cost: $20
TEA AND SYMPATHY
The street has no shortage of boba tea houses, including Lollicup, Tapioca Express, 85 Degrees C Tea House and Cofftea. Tea Station (158 W. Valley,  288-3785) is the most packed -- even on some late weeknights -- maybe because the selection of board games and a library of Mandarin manga makes it so easy to linger. Worth it just for the shouted "huan ying, guang lin" -- welcome -- as you walk through the door.