Festivity and fireworks

Gung Hey Fat Choy! That’s Chinese for "Happy New Year!"

The 10-to-15-day celebration of Chinese New Year begins today. Asians of all ethnicities — including Vietnamese and Cambodians, many of whom are ethnic Chinese — celebrate this grand holiday steeped in tradition.

Chinese New Year is based on the old Chinese calendar, which dates back centuries and measures time by the movement of the sun, moon and stars. According to the calendar, this is 4701 — not 2004. It’s also the Year of the Monkey. In Chinese culture, the monkey signifies determination and a winning attitude.

Each year is designated by one of a dozen animals. (The 12 animals and corresponding years have been popularized — or Americanized, if you will — by the paper placemats used at many Chinese eateries.)

The new year is determined by the second new moon after the winter solstice, which falls somewhere in January or February each year, notes Lang Lang, a Chinese-born pianist who has lived in Queen Village for the last seven years.

As in years past, the internationally renowned Lang will celebrate the new year by performing. After tonight’s concert in Baltimore, Lang, 21, will call his parents in China to wish them a happy new year.

As far as the Chinese are concerned, there is no holiday of greater importance.

"It is the holiday. It is observed by three-quarters of the world — considering how large the Asian community is all over the world," says Ken Wong, owner of CIG Asia Ltd., a Chinatown insurance brokerage firm.

To illustrate the significance of the holiday, Wong says many Chinese business owners work Christmas Day, but all close shop for Chinese New Year.

For three decades, the Chinese-American Wong has been one of the organizers of the Philadelphia Suns — a Chinatown-based basketball and cultural youth organization whose members perform the traditional Chinese lion dance citywide.

The Chinese lion dance is an important tradition in the Far East. The dance is part of Chinese New Year festivities and also is performed at weddings and other milestones. Interestingly, lions are not native to China, so the animal is a mythical beast in that country’s lore, Wong notes. Many casual observers believe the creature in the dance is a dragon because of its fierce appearance.

Two dancers — one wearing the head, the other the body — perform as the lion. A drum, which represents the heartbeat of the lion, accompanies the dance, Wong says.

For decades, the Philadelphia Suns have been performing the lion dance in Chinatown for Chinese New Year. As in recent years, the dance also will be performed this Sunday at Wing Phat Plaza on the 1100 block of Washington Avenue. Fireworks — which many Chinese believe help ward off evil spirits — will light up the sky as the merrymaking commences at 12:30 p.m.

The lion dance will begin outside and then wind its way into the plaza. All Asian businesses will make an offering to the lion, who will stop by each establishment and bow to the altars most keep set up inside year-round. As with fireworks, it is believed the fearsome creature scares away evil spirits and blesses businesses with good luck for the upcoming year, Wong says.

After the festivities at Wing Phat Plaza, the lion dance will make its way down to New World Shppoing Plaza on the 600 block of Washington Avenue.

Also Sunday at the Trocadero, 1003 Arch St. in Chinatown, a free event featuring Chinese entertainers, Chinese opera, fashion, food vendors and more will take place from noon to 5 p.m.

"We kind of want to show the public that Chinatown is more than just restaurants. There’s a lot of other shops here," says event organizer Wong.

But there’s more: The popular Chinese New Year Parade — also featuring the lion dance — takes place in Chinatown on Feb. 1. People from all over the city come out each year to witness the vibrant, colorful spectacle.

"We’re trying to educate the city as to the culture. Asians are making up a big part of the scenery here," Wong says.

But to really experience Chinese New Year, Lang believes there’s no place like his homeland, where the atmosphere is almost magical on this day. "Philadelphia is a nice city for Chinese New Year because a lot of Chinese people live here — especially in Chinatown. So you have a nice atmosphere here, but it’s not the same as walking through Shanghai, Beijing or any big city. People are very enthusiastic for Chinese New Year," he explains.

At midnight, fireworks light up the sky and the partying continues until dawn. Many don’t sleep that night, especially young people, who gather to celebrate in bars, Lang says.

At Wing Kee China Importer Inc. inside Wing Phat Plaza on Friday, local Asian residents already were gearing up for the holiday by purchasing an array of items, said owner Jeffery Hy.

Jeffery and wife Kim specialize in art, gifts, furniture and a host of other Chinese imports. For the new year, shoppers seek out items in the traditional Chinese colors of red and gold.

Many Chinese will decorate their homes with fake firecrackers and beautiful banners depicting emperors or Buddha.

Believed to bring good luck, flowers are also traditional for the new year, both to decorate the home and give as gifts. Traditional flowers include gladiolas and a bud from Thailand. Lucky bamboo plants are also popular.

Some will burn incense to honor the memory of grandparents and other ancestors. And family members often will exchange red envelopes with a dollar to $10 tucked inside.

Since Chinese New Year revolves around family and food, both Hy and Lang liken it to Thanksgiving.

The pianist calls it a family reunion of sorts. "We wish each other long life, good health and, in general, to have a better year — more money, good friends and good times," he says.

According to Lang, dumplings are one of the more popular eats for Chinese New Year. And in his homeland, it’s not uncommon to have at least 30 dishes from all over China. "I call it a huge eating festival," Lang says with a laugh.

The feast is a bit scaled down for most Chinese-Americans, Wong explains, with a mere 12-course dinner consisting of traditional dishes from whatever region of China a family happens to hail from.

Much like New Year’s Day on Jan. 1, it’s "in with the new, out with the old."

"You want to finish up any old business before the new year. So you start the new year off clean," Wong notes. "Many Chinese will clean their homes top to bottom."