According to ancient legend, a mythical beast used to come out on the night before New Year and devour the inhabitants of a small Chinese village. That is, until one of the villagers realized that the monster was afraid of bright light, red color, and sounds of thunder.
Since then, the beast - known as the Nian Monster - has become a major symbol of the Chinese New Year—a celebration chock full of red, firecrackers, and drumming. All the while, many others keep the lights on at home to ensure the Nian Monster stays away.
Across China and in cities around the world, the lunar new year, also known as the Spring Festival, is being joyously celebrated this week. In New York City—home to over 500,000 Chinese-Americans—festivities are scheduled all week, including Chinatown’s famous parade and street party this coming Sunday.
Celebrations, now and then
"Check out Chinatown's annual Lunar New Year celebration for stunning visuals, tantalizing treats and impressive performances. This street party features all sorts of vendors, food and festivities for all ages to welcome the Year of the Monkey," reads an announcement on nycgo.com, a website for New York visitors.
Meanwhile, the city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, designated last Monday—when the festival began—as a day off for public school students; a first for the city, joining the ranks of San Francisco, California and Tenafly, New Jersey.
Historically, however, authorities have not always been so accommodating. When the first wave of Chinese immigrants arrived in the United Stated more than 150 years ago, they were treated as second-class citizens, often mischaracterized as opium smokers and dog- and cat-eaters. Pogroms were organized in Chinese neighborhoods.
From 1882-1943, the U.S. Congress adopted the Chinese Exclusion Act, outright banning Chinese immigration into the United States. And in Hollywood, the tension made its way to the silver screen, where Chinese were cast only by non-Chinese actors to portray villains.
Turning the page
New York’s Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) displays the harsh contrast between America’s treatment of Chinese citizens, then and now.
“There is a vast difference,” said MOCA’s president, Nancy Yao Maasbach. “There is so much more interest in Chinese culture, in US-China relations, in Chinese food, in Chinese arts.”
Joy Liu, MOCA’s Director of Education, says the city’s mayor is helping to create cross-cultural connections across the city, allowing more young people to learn and partake in Chinese traditions.
“The awareness of it brings them out to explore whether they are celebrating at their homes or coming to these spaces to learn about the customs and traditions behind the holiday,” said Liu.
At the museum, kids of all ethnic groups gather to make colorful lanterns, so that they can scare away the Nian Monster together.
A mythical lion can help too. Upon performing his traditional dance, the lion not only keeps Nian away, but also brings good fortune and prosperity to the people.
“Sometimes they’ll spit cabbage—the actual cabbage—they will munch it up and spit it back out in the middle of their lion dance,” said Sophie Lo, MOCA’s Public Programs and Marketing Associate. “And that spitting of cabbage is also a symbol of money. Because 'tsai,' which means 'cabbage', is also a homophone for 'tsai,' meaning 'fortune.'”
The Chinese Diaspora across the United States consists of approximately 3.8 million people—among them, successful authors, politicians and business leaders. And to this day, many of them will tell you: the lion had his paw in it.