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Food, family, fortune during Lunar New Year in Los Angeles

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"We have a swizzle stick covered in 24-carat gold."

Friday ushers in the year of the dog as part of the annual tradition of Lunar New Year. Los Angeles is home to about a million East and Southeast Asian immigrants who celebrate the holiday.  As one of them, I am witnessing a commercial evolution of Lunar New Year here in the city. 

As a kid in China, I associated Lunar New Year with three things: food, family and fortune. 

It was a time to get together, exchange red envelopes filled with crispy bills and feast until we dropped. Now living in San Gabriel Valley, I've noticed that what used to be limited to Chinatown a decade ago is now permeating American mainstream culture. 

Jan Lin is a Professor of Sociology at Occidental College. He's studied the development of L.A.'s Chinatown. He said Lunar New Year was celebrated here as far back as the late 1800s. At that time, the festivities were limited to Chinese communities because of exclusionary restrictions that stopped Chinese immigrants from becoming citizens or owning land in California.

By the 1950s, however, Lunar New Year had really started to expand out of the Chinese community in Southern California.

"By that time, China was a Communist country and the new generations of Chinese were very concerned about showing their loyalty to the American public and at the same time staging this nice festival holiday. Really it was a way of reaching out to the American public," Lin said.

Now Lin says you can see competing Lunar New Year events in different areas like Monterey Park, San Gabriel and Downtown L.A. Communities even coordinate to ensure their celebrations are held on different dates.

Dragon display at the Grove, Los Angeles
Tiffany Chang
Dragon display at the Grove, Los Angeles

It's impossible to go shopping right now without seeing gold coins and red lanterns. The Westfield Santa Anita mall is festooned with 2018's zodiac animal of the year -- the dog.

Debbie Oeung is the media director of the shopping center. 

"This year we have a golden dog in our center court across from our money god statue," Oeung said. 

Step up to the money god, and it's loaded with coins and dollar bills and blessings from mall visitors.

"We have been seeing some of that in our dog statue as well. That's just a fun tradition that people have been participating in, and we love to see that," Oeung said. 

Golden Dog Statue at the Westfield Santa Antia
Beidi Zhang
Golden Dog Statue at the Westfield Santa Antia

Even big dogs like Disney California Adventure and San Diego Sea World are holding Lunar New Year celebrations. The California Lottery's in on it, too, with Lunar New Year themed Scratchers. 

Lin said he's noticed more high-end Lunar New Year products in recent years, like Louis Vuitton handbags. 

"I would actually relate that to a growing flow of more wealthy mainland Chinese American tourists, immigrants and business people to the Southland and throughout Los Angeles," Lin said. 

In a way, this American commercialization of Lunar New Year makes sense. It is, after all, a holiday that's about luck. And food.

Frank Barajas is a store supervisor with the L.A.-based candy company Sugarfina. His store has a whole range of Lunar New Year sweets. 

"The custom labeling and limited [availability] really just sells itself to more than the Asian culture. They take a look and say 'what's this pretty red box?' They just pick it up and buy it," Barajas said. 

24 carat gold wrapped candy at Sugarfina
Beidi Zhang
24 carat gold wrapped candy at Sugarfina

This sort of packaging is spot-on to me as a Chinese American, but maybe just a little too decadent.

"A really big gold aspect of it is the 'swizzle stick' which is actually wrapped with 24-carat gold. You get the accent of the red envelope as well as the Sugarfina gummy envelope as well," Barajas said. 

Debbie Oeung, of the Westfield Santa Anita mall, is Taiwanese American. She celebrates Lunar New Year.

Money God Statue at the Americana, Glendale
Beidi Zhang
Money God Statue at the Americana, Glendale

"We think it's so important to celebrate this tradition that so many of our customers find very meaningful to them," she said. "We really want to create a great experience for them when they come to shop."

Lunar New Year isn't just about gifts and food. Traditionally, Lin said, the holiday can include household spring cleaning and celebrating family and ancestors, so some people might question the commercialization of the day.

"I think that the types of people that might be critical are the guardians of Chinese American history that don't want us to forget the struggles of the early Chinese when they came to this country," Lin said.

Whether or not you end up purchasing any Chinese New Year merchandise this week, remember to spend time with family and some homemade dumplings. 

Gong Xi Fa Cai! Wishing you prosperity in the new year. 

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