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A Lunar New Year do-over: How to celebrate another new year during the pandemic

Year of the Ox decorations in Chinatown
A Chinatown business features “Year of the Ox” decorations for the 2021 Lunar New Year.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Remember how we looked forward to 2021? Three, two, one, “Happy New Year!” — yet the death toll of the pandemic was still climbing.

Then there was an insurrection, a second impeachment and worries over the inauguration.

Now the vaccines are here, but the stress of figuring out what the distribution process was county by county has caused more anxiety.

And then even Hurry Curry closed, an extra blow to the folks who were reeling from those Curry House closures.

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Lunar New Year-celebrating Asian Americans understand that you can put on that sparkly dress to dance the night away on Dec. 31 and make those resolutions for Jan. 1. But if the first month doesn’t work out so well, clean your home before the first new moon on the lunar calendar, get those red envelopes, prepare that feast and you might just get a do-over.

This year, let’s all get a do-over.

Will there be fancy ox ice sculptures (for the Year of the Ox) at luxury malls, or YouTube stars performing at a San Gabriel Valley night market? Maybe not. But Wednesday’s South Coast Plaza virtual Lunar New Year event — featuring a lion dance, classical Chinese instrument performances, Vietnamese drumming, K-pop covers and Mongolian bowl dance — is up on Facebook, and you can always support your favorite creatives virtually.

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Will there be hanboks, áo dàis and qipao dresses? Maybe not at a Chinatown parade, Tet festival, K-Town outdoor concert or celebration in the university quad organized by the Asian American student org — but in the comfort of your home while you take photos for your gram? Why not?

Lunar New Year, like the Jan. 1 New Year, is about letting go of the past and welcoming the future. And while there will inevitably be some improvisation during the pandemic, there can still be family (a safe number in person and others virtually); luck (buy tangerines, wear the new clothes, hang the Chinese character for fortune upside down); and a virtual cash exchange.

Here are tips to help you and your family increase fortune, health and prosperity for the Lunar New Year.

Food

There are lucky foods. Lucky for you, there are restaurants that have been struggling during the pandemic that could use your monetary blessings.

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  • SGV Eats is a Facebook group where locals post their favorite local restaurants, home kitchens, markets, food trucks and more. Sift through Lunar New Year deals, gawk at the desserts and learn which dim sum places have safe outdoor dining. It’s a resource created by San Gabriel Valley natives.
  • Little Saigon restaurants: Numerous Vietnamese American restaurants in Orange County have been cooking for free to nourish the needy since the beginning of the pandemic. The Recess Room, Song Long, Garlic & Chives and Pholicious are among more than 25 restaurants in Little Saigon that are worth supporting as they support others.

Would you rather cook at home? Lucky for you, the L.A. Times has a “Food for a Chinese New Year Feast” guide that walks through the typical foods and symbolism behind the dishes. There is also a compilation of 78 Lunar New Year recipes that you can scroll through.

Have you become a much fancier cook while stuck at home during the pandemic? Try out some Lunar New Year recipes from top Los Angeles chefs.

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Are you not in the mood for these dishes? That’s OK; the Asian American way of celebrating holidays is often an improvised combination of what you love most about your various cultures.

There’s a Chinese New Year expression “nian nian you yu,” which is a pun that can mean both “Every year, there’s fish” or “Every year, there’s a surplus.” Traditionally, it’s a steamed whole fish that you share family-style, but any fish will do.

You’re supposed to eat long noodles for long life, but any noodles will do.

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There’s also a Buddhist-inspired tradition of going vegan for the new year, so here are some L.A. Times vegan and vegetarian recipes.

And you can’t go wrong with dumplings.

Red envelopes

Traditionally, people go to the bank for crisp bills to stuff in red envelopes for youth and elders. But this is also being improvised during the pandemic with some opting for checks, e-cards, WeChat’s red packet option or Line Pay.

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So if you don’t have WeChat or Line, just Venmo your Asian American family and friends money with the red envelope emoji 🧧. Venmo all your non-Asian American family and friends too.

Or better yet, support some Asian American small businesses and causes.

Early in the pandemic, a coalition of nail salons — an industry that’s predominantly run by Vietnamese Americans — mobilized nationally to donate hundreds of thousands of masks and other personal protective equipment to health care workers. Some of these nail salons have recently opened after months of no business. Even if you’re not itching for some pampering self-care right now, buy a gift certificate for later. Get some for your friends.

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Also, as Lunar New Year approaches, there have been efforts to bring more attention to violence against Asian American seniors. As there’s renewed focus on anti-Asian racism, look for ways to support organizations like the Oakland Chinatown Coalition, which is organizing a volunteer foot patrol that will start the first few days after the Lunar New Year, and the Asian America Senior Citizens Service Center, which works to get vaccines to elderly people in vulnerable communities.

Things to do

There aren’t going to be a lot of in-person events. The places that typically celebrate Lunar New Year (China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, South Korea, Singapore) are also places where mask-wearing is a norm — as is taking the pandemic seriously. But there are some distanced and virtual events.

  • Saturday: Pasadena’s Pacific Asia Museum is hosting an afternoon of online activities, including streams of lion dances and performances, as well as craft workshops.
  • Saturday: The Cerritos Town Center is hosting a Red Envelope Hunt, where you can safely search within the mall for hidden red envelopes filled with gift cards inside.
  • Saturday: The Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Los Angeles is hosting its annual Golden Lunar New Year Parade virtually. It’s the longest-running Lunar New Year parade outside of China, starting in the late 1800s.
  • Sunday: Orange County’s #MovingForwardTogether Coalition has been providing hot meals to those in need from the Recess Room in Fountain Valley since the beginning of the pandemic. The group is holding a special event celebrating both Lunar New Year and Valentine’s Day, at which they plan to provide more than 500 meals. They are looking for volunteers, especially Vietnamese-speaking drivers to deliver meals.
  • Sunday and Feb. 28: The Bowers Museum is having a virtual family festival for Chinese New Year. There will be performances, a recipe and an art project.
  • Feb. 16 to 21: Joy Ruckus Club 3: Virtual Lunar New Year will host nine virtual stages over six days and feature 180 artists of Asian descent from all around the world. Go to their Sessions website to check out their daily themes.
  • Feb. 18: The virtual Hennessy’s celebration will be hosted by Henry Golding and AtomicMari. There will be appearances by Eddie Huang and mixologist Cari Hah, who will share Lunar New Year dishes and drinks, and performances by Jay Park, Dumbfoundead, Year of the Ox, MILCK and Kinjaz.

Festivities continue for about two weeks after the new year, so email utility@latimes.com if you’d like to add something to the list.

If you do nothing else, count your blessings, appreciate your loved ones and give yourself a chance to begin anew.

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If the start of the Year of the Ox is not as filled with strength, reliability, fairness and conscientiousness as the zodiac animal promises, there’s always Songkran (Thai New Year), which gives us until April 13 to turn this all around.


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