‘Less hugs, more Zooms’ — Asian Americans celebrate second pandemic Lunar New Year

Two people at a temple.
Jingjing Guo, right, with partner Chenggang Zhu, make an offering at the four-faced Buddha shrine at MP Prajna Buddhist Mission in Monterey Park. The couple said they came to pray for best wishes for 2022.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Anna Nguyen walked toward Bao Quang Temple, ready to chant and pray to the majestic golden Buddha.

With the Lunar New Year nearing, she would make an offering of $100 and ask for blessings for family members who were ill.

Then her phone rang.

It was her cousin, questioning the wisdom of going inside the temple in Santa Ana, with the highly contagious Omicron variant circulating.

Nguyen, who is Vietnamese American, decided to turn around and forgo her customary new year ritual.


“She’s a little bossy, but she made me rethink my decision,” Nguyen, who is in her 50s and works in e-commerce, said of the cousin. “It’s like we do less hugs, more Zooms, because no one is hosting big banquets costing big money.”

Across Southern California, Asian Americans are celebrating a second pandemic Lunar New Year, with the Year of the Tiger set to begin Tuesday — and that means adjusting long-held traditions.

A shrine with a tiger painting and other elements at the Wong Tai-Sen Taoism Center draws the faithful to Monterey Park.
A shrine with a tiger painting and religious elements at the Wong Tai-Sen Taoism Center draws the faithful to Monterey Park. The center has provided a sanctuary for people to make offerings and have a spiritual relationship with its different Buddhas for almost 35 years.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Instead of dressing up for visits to vulnerable elders, young people are sharing wishes for good health on FaceTime. Some are sketching artwork or recording videos to send to grandparents they won’t be seeing in person.

At the sprawling Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights, the crowds of worshipers who normally come to make new year’s wishes are absent, with only a few allowed to pray by appointment.

Others are taking calculated risks, attending outdoor festivals or feasting with a small group of family members.


Helen Lin decided not to fly to Taiwan to visit her father for the holiday.

She hasn’t seen him since the pandemic began more than two years ago. Taiwan requires a 14-day quarantine for international travelers. Her father is diabetic, raising his risk of severe COVID-19.

“Airfare is higher. There are not as many flights, and once we’re there, we need to isolate for longer,” said Lin, 32, of Los Angeles, who works in retail.

Wishing ties are left as offerings at the four-faced Buddha shrine at MP Prajna Buddhist Mission in Monterey Park.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

In past years, her family donned traditional dresses — qipao on her Chinese side and hanbok on her Korean side — to attend parties at one relative’s house or another, indulging in fagao, a type of “prosperity cake,” on a table sprinkled with lucky kumquats or manduguk, a Korean dumpling soup.

This time around, she may stay home and order sushi.

For some, the pandemic has created a chance to introduce their holiday food traditions to a wide audience while sharing time with their immediate families.

Martin Yan of the long-running “Yan Can Cook” television series typically spends the holiday on the road — Cambodia, China, Malaysia, Singapore. He has lifted his glass in all those locales, toasting his hosts’ good fortune.

Last year and again this year, he will cook a feast from his home kitchen for an online audience of thousands.

On the menu Tuesday for Yan’s free webcast with chef Lucas Sin are pork ribs and clay pot chicken, both marinated in Tsingtao beer, along with a lo hei salad — “tossing up good fortune” in Cantonese.

Festival Fuji apples stack up for sale at Great Wall Supermarket in Monterey Park.
Crisp Festival Fuji apples stacked up for sale at Great Wall Supermarket in Monterey Park. The Chinese character on the fruits means “good fortune.”
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

People’s anxieties about getting sick during the pandemic have prompted Yan to share traditional Chinese beliefs about the healing properties of food.

He has told his audience that pears are good for the throat and lungs, while pomegranates and goji berries build immunity.

“The idea is to educate more people about Asian culture, and more than ever before, the more that people understand each other” through food, “the better they will get along, especially during rising anti-Asian hate,” said Yan, 73, who was born in Guangzhou, China.

His wife and twin sons are glad to have him home in San Mateo County, not only for Lunar New Year but for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Colin and Devin, both 28, moved in with their parents during the pandemic.

They work from home offices — Colin as a chiropractor doing telehealth consultations and Devin as an accountant — with their dad nearby sharing his cooking techniques and showcasing food stocked in three double-door refrigerators to people all over the world.

Just days before the dawn of the Year of the Monkey, David Pham walked out of a Wells Fargo bank in Little Saigon — past tubs of purple holiday orchids — clutching $500 in crisp bills.

Feb. 4, 2016

Similarly, Vietnamese Americans Tien Nguyen and Diep Tran will show an audience tuning in from San Francisco, New York and Dallas, as well as Los Angeles, how to make sticky, square rice cakes called banh chung, which are traditionally eaten for the new year.


Nguyen and Tran formed the Banh Chung Collective to bring foodies together by making the dish, and to strengthen bonds between women, LGBTQIA and people of color.

Chenggang Zhu of Irvine places an offering to the four-faced Buddha shrine at MP Prajna Buddhist Mission in Monterey Park.
Chenggang Zhu places an offering to the four-faced Buddha shrine at MP Prajna Buddhist Mission in Monterey Park. The front face symbolizes career and life. Continuing clockwise, the second represents relationship and family, the third is for wealth while the last is for wisdom and health.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

During the pandemic, the gathering has been virtual, but everyone still wraps rice, shallots, mung beans and pork in fresh banana leaves, using $50 kits.

It is “a bonding time in this time of ups and downs,” said Nguyen, a cookbook author in Eagle Rock.

“When you make something from scratch, it’s revelatory. There’s a sense of ownership and bragging rights as you figure out more pieces of a culture,” said Tran, former chef and owner of Good Girl Dinette in Highland Park.

For the second year, the tradition of handing out cash in red envelopes is being disrupted by the pandemic.


Aside from extended family members not getting together in person, the $20 and $100 bills themselves — which are supposed to be new and perfectly crisp — are in short supply due to labor shortages.

Some people resort to inserting checks in the envelopes. Others can’t bring themselves to do that.

Workers pour live tilapia into aeration tanks for customers to purchase at Great Wall Supermarket in Monterey Park.
Workers pour live tilapia into aeration tanks for customers planning holiday meals to buy at Great Wall Supermarket in Monterey Park. The Lunar New Year begins Tuesday, but due to the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, gone are the big banquets and multi-generational family gatherings.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

One day in late January, Ron Chen was running from bank to bank in downtown L.A.’s Chinatown, trying to secure some new bills.

He finally decided to give gift cards to his nieces and nephews, even though a holiday without “fresh 10s and 20s isn’t really a traditional holiday.”

Chen, 40, who works at a medical clinic in Alhambra and is an immigrant from Hong Kong, doesn’t do everything according to custom.


Instead of feasting with family, he and his friends sometimes go to Las Vegas for buffets, a show and a bit of gambling — but not this year.

“I guess I will save money and protect my health,” Chen said.

Some public new year celebrations are continuing but in scaled-back form.

At the O.C. Fair & Event Center in Costa Mesa, organizers of the massive Tet Festival — the largest Lunar New Year gathering in the nation — have cut back from three days to two.

Those coming through the gates on Feb. 5 and 6 will need to show proof of vaccination, and hand sanitizer stations will be everywhere. The popular Miss Vietnam of Southern California pageant will be held outdoors.

Thinh Nguyen, who heads the organizing committee, expects attendance to be half or three-fourths of a typical year, when the festival can draw as many as 100,000 from around the country for a blend of tradition, county fair and beach party.

Nguyen, 27, got COVID-19 last January. He is fully vaccinated and boosted.

“It’s been more than two years now, so I’ve learned to do what I need to do,” he said. “You can’t let the fear stop you from living.”

The festival must go on, he said, because it’s a rare chance for Vietnamese Americans from outside Southern California to experience a large celebration of their culture.


Christine Vo, admissions director for the event, said she first became involved in the festival as a student volunteer to get closer to her roots.

“What people don’t realize is this is a chance to really learn about where you come from,” said Vo, 23. “Pandemic or no pandemic, guests want to be in the traditional Vietnam Village to read poetry and play games. They want to take photos for social media. They want to be extra careful to fight the virus, but they also need unity.”

In Westminster’s Little Saigon, the annual Tet Parade will proceed on Saturday with lion dancers along with performers and dignitaries in traditional costumes, despite safety concerns.

Local politicians and City Council members plan to wave at the crowds from floats. But some activists have petitioned to cancel the parade for fear it will be a “super spreader.”

By contrast, the usual celebration in L.A.’s Chinatown will move from the streets to online.

Viewers will watch a 24-minute animated tale of last year’s ox passing the baton to this year’s tiger. Well-known Asian actors will make cameos.


“In years past, we’ve had a food festival and marching bands and lion dancers, but to do that now is not responsible,” said Gloria Chang Yip, vice president of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce of Los Angeles. “We want to celebrate and to celebrate safely.”

Produce manager Peter Dao, right, helps a customer select fresh gladiolus flowers at the Great Wall Supermarket.
Produce manager Peter Dao, right, helps a customer select fresh gladiolus flowers at the Great Wall Supermarket in Monterey Park. The Lunar New Year, with the dawn of the Year of the Tiger, begins Tuesday.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Peter Dao, produce manager at Great Wall Supermarket in Monterey Park, will be celebrating with his wife, two sons and a few other family members.

They will eat lau thap cam — Vietnamese hot pot with fish, symbolizing the idea of plenty — and assorted greens and shrimp, as well as mi xao, or stir-fried chow mein.

The gathering will be smaller than usual, but “we can’t completely leave all the relatives out,” he said.

To him, existing in the era of COVID is a matter of give-and-take.

“It’s not that everyone is stopping celebrating,” he said. “Everyone has different philosophies, and they try for balance.”