At her store in Chinatown, Tracy Tieu replaces red and green Christmas trinkets with red and gold Lunar New Year decorations as she greets shoppers fresh from Las Vegas.
A mother strokes a jade dragon leaping from a dark wood emblem. A man and his wife unfurl scrolls bearing symbols of wealth. A student buys assorted little Buddhas, lining them up by belly size.
Inside the shop, Wing Ha Hing Gifts & Arts, Asian travelers this past weekend talk about how many aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents they expect to host at noisy family gatherings.
One new year celebration may have ended — but for many Southern Californians the bustle of preparing for the Lunar New Year continues full force, with no time for holiday fatigue.
“We can’t afford it,” Tieu says. “We go with the season.... I order supplies six months in advance.”
At crowded shopping plazas in Los Angeles’ Chinatown and Koreatown, the San Gabriel Valley and Orange County’s Little Saigon, seasonal foods line bakery shelves, holiday music plays on open-air speakers and Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese consumers are spending big — yet again — on their most important annual celebration.
The Year of the Snake begins Feb. 10. Those born under this sign are believed to have a good temper and strong passion, but can be suspicious.
The Lunar New Year is a time when debts are paid, arguments are laid to rest, hair is cut and homes are painted and polished and rituals are followed to sweep away ill fortune and welcome good luck. Doors and windows are decorated with themed images of happiness, prosperity and longevity, and incense is lighted in temples to pay respect to ancestors.
In the narrow, colorful shop her father opened in 1990, Tieu is surrounded by flowers, feng shui diaries, floating lotus candles and other traditional gifts.
Regina Gomez, a Chinese American from Nevada, was one of those hunting for bargains along Chinatown’s main drag Sunday. She stopped at Tieu’s store to prepare for the coming festivities. “When we buy for entertainment, it’s better to buy for it here. It’s less,” she says, browsing with her kids, Shelby and Brittany. “I came to L.A. for Christmas and knew I should take a look before going home.”
On the first morning of the new year, as everyone exchanges gifts and good wishes, Tieu plans to pass out crisp dollar bills in lucky red envelopes to some 20 nieces and nephews. “I have to give each of them at least $20 – anything smaller just isn’t acceptable.”
“It doesn’t matter what we do or how much we gave for the previous holidays,” adds Angie Tieu, her younger sister. “We have to remember the Lunar New Year, it’s tradition, and we must spend.”
On top of the financial costs, the extended holiday season carries health costs, said Calvin Ho, founder of the Plaid Bag Connection, a blog exploring the links between Asian groups outside their ethnic homeland. “We’ve been eating since the Moon Festival” in September “to Halloween, to Thanksgiving to Christmas and forward. Everyone overindulges because it’s impossible not to.”
Ho, who doesn’t eat fried foods, says “with the holidays it’s really hard to avoid it.”
“Everything involves family,” he said. “And when you are making multiple visits to different members of family day after day, you must sit down and share a meal. I get all my cravings in and it’ll last until next fall.”
Visiting Chinatown with her husband on Sunday, Elisa Aquino, who is half-Chinese, said she intends to serve dim sum dishes when she invites friends and relatives to her Carson home. “We go for a bang. High impact, lots of songs, lots of jokes.... I’m not cooking. We order,” she adds.
Stephanie Yuan, working a souvenir kiosk nearby, said sales are brisk post-Christmas. “We are sold out of snake lucky charms,” she says proudly, noting that the item features the animal highlighted in the 2013 Chinese zodiac.
“Here, you buy this one,” she tells passing tourists, pointing to an Asian version of the Cheshire cat, complete with battery-operated paw, happy face and money pouch. On its white ceramic body is the Chinese character for $1 million. “It will lead you to a good way.”
Merchants like Yuan and Thanh Ly, of neighboring Tambaba Fashion, can’t take Lunar New Year off. “It’s the day to sell,” Ly says, folding traditional dresses made in Vietnam and Hong Kong. “We would like to have a vacation but we think about our living first. Some people buy last-minute.”
Kevin Vong of Fresno isn’t one of those. Outside Lien Hoa BBQ, he loads his truck with a whole roast pig, costing $195, carting it to a gathering to pray for the souls of his ancestors. He does this at the end of the Western new year, then again at the Lunar New Year. “I do not forget,” he says. “I want someone doing that for me later. Years later.”