February 17, 2017

Ringing in the Year of the Monkey in NYC

Words + Photos : Rachel Amico

One of the best things about New York is how many different people live here. You can easily visit a Jewish, Dominican, or Korean neighborhood all in one day. I think that’s one of the reasons people say “if you make it in New York, you can make it anywhere” – because New York is a little bit of everywhere.

Spread out between Little Italy and Tribeca, Chinatown is one of New York’s largest and most well-known cultural enclaves, and the Chinese Lunar New Year is one of its largest celebrations. After living in New York for three years and never visiting the area (except for taking cheap busses up to Boston) I figured that attending the annual parade was a great time to start.

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Storied traditions

The Lunar New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, has been celebrated in China for thousands of years. While some traditions have been adapted over time, some of the most recognizable symbols – red decorations, fireworks, and drumming – originate from the legend of Nian. As the legend goes, a demon named Nian (which means “Year” in English) would return to terrorize a small village at the start of every year. But, one year, an old beggar man was able to frighten the monster away by staying up late burning candles, using the color red in decoration and dress, and exploding loud fireworks.

New Year’s festivities traditionally span over 15 days, starting with feasting and celebrations on New Year’s Eve, and ending with the festival of lanterns. Each day in between is dedicated to specific practices, from honoring gods and ancestors, to cleaning the home, to eating traditional chinese dumplings as a symbol of prosperity, or particularly long noodles as a symbol of longevity.

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Old and new

I was expecting a relatively thin crowd at the parade due to nearly sub-zero temperatures, but was happy to see hundreds of extremely bundled-up people crowding the sidewalks. I wandered around the neighborhood for a bit, checking out dense displays of red charms and decorations in shop windows (some for the New Year, and some for Valentine’s day), before I settled into a good spot to view the colorful parade. To the beat of relentless drumming and music, dragons and lions danced past as confetti-filled party poppers exploded overhead.

Watching the parade brought back memories of a Chinese New Year celebration i’d attended in Chicago as a child. I remember being thrilled by the vivid colors, the dragon puppets eating red envelopes full of dollar bills out of my hands, and the dozens of new foods I tried at lunch. When my mom eventually developed the photos from my very first disposable camera, I was disappointed. The photos were terrible and underexposed – nothing like the vibrant colors I’d seen.

Luckily, this year I was equipped with Moment lenses. As a relatively short person, I usually don’t do so well at parades. I can’t see what i’m shooting, and i’m so far away that I can never get a good shot. On this day, my high-heeled boots and Moment Tele lens allowed me to feel right in the thick of it.

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Dumplings and tea

After the parade wound down, I did what everyone wanted to do: get inside, warm up, and eat some delicious dumplings. I decided to go to Wah Tea Parlor, which has been open since 1920 and bills itself as New York’s first dim sum restaurant. A crowd formed outside but I quickly found myself seated at the bar.

A steamed dim-sum sampler arrived quickly with 8 elegantly crafted and delicious dumplings. Soon after, an order of crispy scallion pancakes gave me the texture contrast I needed, and a huge spongy pork bun filled all leftover space in my stomach. After sipping Empress green tea and chatting with my neighbor for a while, I was warm and full enough to venture back into the cold.

Everyone loves celebrations, but this day was a great reminder of how much I love ringing in the new year. I find it fascinating that every culture has its own celebration of new beginnings – whether it’s wearing glittery dresses and drinking champagne, or wearing bright red and setting off fireworks. It is so easy to look around the world, especially right now, and see what divides us. It’s refreshing to remember what we have in common every once in awhile.

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