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A Reduced But Still Joyous Lunar New Year in Chicago

Daniel Hautzinger
Lanterns for Lunar New Year on Argyle Street. Photo: Courtesy Uptown United
Lanterns for Lunar New Year on Argyle Street. Photo: Courtesy Uptown United

While the COVID-19 pandemic forestalls the possibility of a Lunar New Year parade in Chinatown this year, there will still be lion dances moving from business to business down the sidewalks on February 21 at noon to welcome in a new year and chase away the evil and negativity of the previous one—perhaps helping to usher the struggles of COVID-19 away as vaccination campaigns continue to pick up.

“Every new year is significant, and probably more so in the pandemic,” says Gene Lee, the founder of the volunteer organization Chicago Chinatown Special Events, which has been organizing Lunar New Year festivities in the neighborhood for decades and now partners with the Chicago Chinatown Community Foundation for the celebrations. “We all know what new year’s means: the potential for a better future.”

The Lunar New Year falls this year on February 12, opening the Year of the Ox. People born in the Year of the Ox “are very patient and speak very little,” says Lee. “They inspire confidence in others, and tend to be eccentric. Sometimes they anger easily. They are mentally and physically alert. They can be a little stubborn, and hate to fail or be opposed.”

Even without the parade (you can watch a video of last year’s), Lee says that people from across Chicagoland will be picking up food and supplies from Chinatown for their own private celebrations with their families: “Duck, chicken, all the usual pastries.”

Various foods are traditional in Lunar New Year celebrations, symbolizing prosperity, safety, and health, as Asia on Argyle explains in a Lunar New Year pamphlet. The Uptown stretch of East and Southeast Asian businesses this year is celebrating the New Year with red lanterns along Argyle Street and Broadway and a virtual program at noon on February 20 featuring performances and stories, instead of their typical parade.

“We want to make it feel like something special is happening in the area and draw people to the local businesses,” says Greg Carroll, the director of partnerships & events at Uptown United and the Uptown Chamber of Commerce, which are behind the celebrations. The nearly 250 lanterns were put up with the help of the design studio All Together.

The stories featured in Asia on Argyle’s virtual program will also spotlight local businesses via a tour of Argyle and segments on some of the area’s mainstays, such as Sun Wah BBQ, known for its roast duck feast.

Food is an integral part of Lunar New Year celebrations. A whole poached or steamed chicken can represent rebirth, while long noodles serve as a wish for a long life. Spring rolls celebrate the arrival of spring as well as good fortune. Chinese glutinous rice cakes called nian gao are symbolic of prosperity; Vietnamese rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves are known as banh chung or banh tet and represent nature. “Dumplings are similar to gold ingots,” Lee explains.

Red and gold are significant colors for the Lunar New Year, as is evident in red lanterns and red money-filled envelopes given to children as an omen of future happiness and prosperity. “Always red and gold,” Lee says, “and oranges”—which with their golden color symbolize wealth. In Vietnam, vibrant candied fruits and treats known as mut tet are traditionally eaten.

“We try to pay our debts before the end of the year, to start the new year with a clean slate,” explains Lee. Many people also clean their homes before the new year, sweeping away the bad luck of the previous year, and then avoiding cleaning on New Year’s Day, lest they sweep away the new year’s good fortune. “We try not to mention the pandemic—we all know we’re going through it,” says Lee. “We try to be cheerful and positive, and wish everyone a happy, healthy, prosperous, and safe new year.”