This weekend is party time and not just because it's Super Bowl weekend. For Southern California's many Asian communities, it's the annual celebration of the Lunar New Year. While L.A.'s Chinatown has long been the focus of New Year celebrations, newer Asian communities are also forging their identities with their own unique celebrations.
For the Vietnamese community, it's the Year of the Cat (the Chinese are celebrating the Year of the Rabbit), and in Garden Grove the Vietnamese community will hold its annual three-day Tet festival (full name, Tet Nguyen Dan, which translates to "Feast of the First Morning"). The Garden Grove celebration is marking its 30th year and is considered to be the largest Tet festival outside of Vietnam, drawing 100,000-plus visitors from all over the United States.
"It's a way to immerse yourself in Vietnamese culture without having to actually travel there," says Monica Vu, the festival's marketing director. "It's a little taste of Vietnam for the whole family to have fun and a chance to experience something new."
The three-day Tet event includes nonstop entertainment on a main stage, traditional lion dances, a staged traditional wedding and feast (considered good luck for the new year), games and contests for children, loads of vendors selling traditional foods like banh chung, pho and sugar cane juice, as well as the chance to purchase Vietnamese crafts and gifts.
"Our biggest draw is the Cultural Village, "says Victor Nguyen-Lieu, vice chair of the festival. "Every year we create a traditional Vietnamese village on the festival site with the types of structures, homes and landmarks you would find in Vietnam. For a lot of Vietnamese, it's like a taste of home."
Different events frame each day. On Friday night, contestants vie for the title of Miss Vietnam of Southern California — a scholastic pageant rather than a beauty pageant. "There is no swimsuit section," jokes Tiffany Nguyen–Lieu, co-pageant director. "It's a cultural pageant where the entrants show their knowledge of Vietnamese culture with dance and presentations and they compete for scholarship money that goes to their tuition." On Saturday, there is a Children's Pageant, a singing contest and a Youth Night, and on Sunday night it's a traditional Vietnamese concert.
The Tet Festival is hosted by the Union of Vietnamese Student Assns., a body of college students and recent grads who volunteer their time to uphold community traditions. Fifty percent of the proceeds go back to help the community. "The festival was created by a group of college students in 1982, and they created an organization to maintain the festival and a place where Vietnamese American students can come together and contribute to the community," says Victor Nguyen-Lieu. "This year we will be hitting the $1-million mark that we are giving back to the community."
"I remember coming to this as a child, and now, as a recent graduate, I get a chance to contribute, "says 24-year-old Monica Vu. "It really brings the community together. Our festival encompasses so much, and it's a way to really bridge the generations."
The traditional new year celebrations in L.A.'s historic Chinatown promise to be bigger and better this year, according to marketing consultant Linh Ho. "We may be the oldest, but we are always trying to give it a fresh spin every year," she says.
The 112th Annual Golden Dragon Parade winds its way through Chinatown on Saturday, with more than 100 floats, marching bands and performers, and during the entire weekend the whole district will be converted into a street fair with performances by acrobats, lion dancers and contortionists. The Central Plaza will host the LA Craft Experience market with more than 40 types of vendors selling original art, gifts and toys. There will be cultural workshops and a ping-pong tournament for any who dare to compete. In addition, all restaurants in the area are open, and well-known L.A. food trucks will be stationed in the Central Plaza.
Sunday sees a different kind of entertainment, as organizers of Race/LA put on "The Great Chinatown Hunt," in which teams of two to four players have a total of three hours to solve a series of clues leading them around Chinatown.
In the San Gabriel Valley, a one-day new year festival takes place Saturday in Alhambra. Covering five blocks, the street fair will include kung fu demonstrations and entertainers from the community, as well as food and merchandise vendors, and for children a petting zoo of rabbits to signify the coming year.
"For us, it's Year of the Rabbit. It's a lucky sign that means prosperity and luck and harmony, which is a good thing after the turmoil of the past few years," says Linh Ho. "It's a great and positive time to come and celebrate Lunar New Year with us."
Tet Festival, Garden Grove Park, 9301 Westminster Ave, Garden Grove. Friday, 2-10 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. -9 p.m. $5 (adults), $4 (children under 4 feet). (714) 890-1418; http://www.tetfestival.org.
Golden Dragon Parade and Chinese New Year Festival in Chinatown, Central Plaza, 943-951 N. Broadway and West Plaza, 949 N. Hill St., Los Angeles. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. The parade begins 1 p.m. Saturday. Route starts at Main Street and Cesar Chavez Avenue. Free. For parade map route, http://www.lagoldendragonparade.com. Other information, (213) 680-0243; http://www.chinatownla.com. For The Great Chinatown Hunt, Sunday, (310) 360-6950; http://www.racela.com.