South Coast Plaza begins celebration of Lunar New Year

COSTA MESA — To the crashing of cymbals and beating of drums, a brilliantly adorned troupe of Lion Dancers at South Coast Plaza on Thursday heralded the arrival of the Year of the Dragon.

The shopping center was kicking off its 13-day celebration of the Lunar New Year. A 40-foot red paper dragon coiled itself in the two-story space around Jewel Court, and a ring of holiday greetings from the balcony above proclaimed "Happy New Year" in English and the languages of four Asian countries marking the occasion: China, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam.

South Coast Plaza management did not bill the event as a singular celebration of the Chinese New Year, yet aspects of Chinese culture will clearly dominate the mall's Lunar Year showcase in the coming days.

For one, an exhibit of crystal sculptures of dragons, made by San Francisco-based Liuli Glass Art, will be displayed in Jewel Court through Jan. 31. Then, on Saturday, the Bowers Museum will present a "live" Terra Cotta Warrior display, while Chinese calligraphy artist Jack Liang will create personalized bookmarks for shoppers.

In addition, the Lion Dancers will be back for at least four more performances in Jewel Court, according to an SCP press release.

On Thursday, before the Lion Dancers performed, state tourism officials announced that more than 20 tour groups comprising more than 650 travelers from mainland China would be stopping in Orange County as part of what they were billing as a 10-day "Chinese New Year" package trip around California.

The groups will converge at Disneyland on Jan. 25. Shannon Brooks, the state tourism bureau's manager for international public relations, confirmed that all 20 tour groups would also be making stops at South Coast Plaza — a "key stop" on their O.C. itinerary.

Visit California officials forecast that these more than 650 tourists would spend at least $2,652 while in California — more than twice the amount that the average foreign visitor spends as a whole on one trip. In 2010, according to state tourist data, about 401,000 visitors from mainland China (excluding Hong Kong and Taiwan) spent $1.06 billion while visiting California.

According to the same market report by Visit California, in 2010 shopping ranked as the top activity among visitors from mainland China — ahead of dining and urban sightseeing, which were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 — and outpaced shopping done by visitors from other countries, who also ranked shopping as their top activity here.

Richard M. Swanson Jr., the Irvine-based regional director of the U.S. Department of Commerce, a zone that covers California, Nevada and Hawaii, was among a group of dignitaries who attended the ceremony.

"Shopping is linked to tourism," he said, referring to how vital Chinese tourists are to that sector. "Tourism is linked to trade and trade is linked to both importing and exporting products and services — and that means economic development in both countries .... What we would like to see in the future is the same type of foreign direct investment that the Koreans and the Japanese have, [which is] reflected here in California."

Werner Escher, South Coast Plaza's executive director of domestic and international markets who emceed Thursday's ceremony, for years has overseen the SCP operation that promotes the shopping center to shoppers traveling from outside its core markets.

The veteran manager, who has worked for South Coast Plaza for nearly 45 years, has touted it as an "international destination" and "shopping experience."

"Our windows effectively compete with blue skies and sunsets," he said.

Twitter: @ImranVittachi

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