Welcoming the New Year is just the beginning of the most important celebration of Chinese culture. It is much more than firecrackers and dragons.
Chinese New Year begins Tuesday night and kicks off two weeks of celebration that pack in gifts, food and family gatherings. Some Chinese say it’s like rolling the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s all into one holiday.
In China, it also is known for the vast number of people who travel home for the Spring Festival, which starts at midnight on the first night of the New Year.
But for many Chinese residents in the Triangle, the celebrations are smaller, especially for small business owners.
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Rikki Ren, who manages the Dragon Inn Chinese Restaurant in Durham for her father David, said her family planned to celebrate the Year of the Pig with a midnight dinner of fish and dumplings — the traditional menu from her hometown Tianjin, a major port city in northeastern China.
“We have a business so we can’t celebrate New Year as we would in China,” she said. “We can’t take that much time off. Two weeks is a long time.”
During the next two weeks, though, she said she will welcome other Chinese residents and immigrants to the restaurant. The Spring Festival, which follows the lunar calendar, also is celebrated in Korea and Vietnam.
A growing population
The Triangle has a large population of Chinese and other Asian residents who have settled in Raleigh, Cary, Durham and Chapel Hill. Companies in Research Triangle Park and the three research universities — Duke University, UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State — draw them here.
Overall, North Carolina’s Asian population is about 2.7 percent, according to U.S. Census data. But locally, the percentages are greater.
Cary’s Asian population is about 16.8 percent or about 26,900 of its total population of 160,000. That’s an 81 percent increase since 2010 when the last census was taken.
In Chapel Hill, the Asian population has increased to nearly 7,500, or roughly 13 percent of the town’s 60,000 residents. In Apex, Asians increased to nearly 3,500 or 7 percent of the town’s 50,000 residents.
In Raleigh and Durham, where the overall populations are larger, Asians represent about 5 percent of residents.
A step forward, and some backwards
With growth and more visibility have come setbacks.
In late 2017, Hongbin Gu was elected to the Chapel Hill Town Council, the first Chinese-American to serve on the board. She faced social media comments that questioned the legitimacy of her campaign and criticized her immigrant background.
“We have seen significant growth in our community and in Research Triangle Area,” Gu said. “We all feel that it is a big part to cherish our cultural heritage. And also, it’s a great opportunity to reach out to our local communities and to share those traditions. I think it’s really a test to show what an inclusive and diverse community we have.”
At Duke University, a graduate studies adviser stepped down last month after telling Chinese students to speak English. Emails seen as culturally insensitive drew criticism from home and abroad, including the Chinese government.
And Asian business owners grew more alarmed after Durham restaurant-owner Hong Zheng was killed during a robbery last April.
Zheng’s death was talked about a lot in the Chinese community, Ren said.
“I think all of the Chinese families, not only the Chinese restaurant owners, are being more vigilant after Zheng’s death,” she said.
“[But] that kind of tragedy has not only happened among Chinese,” Ren said. “I remember a gas station owner was killed on Guess Road, which is only two blocks from our restaurant. As one who works in a restaurant and goes home late, I do hope safety in Durham can be better.”
Durham police responded with a task force aimed at increasing safety for Asian business owners. Cary police also held outreach programs on home and business security measures after Asian businesses were targeted.
Sharing their culture
Chinese culture is one of the world’s oldest, tracing back to thousands of years.
The Triangle Area Chinese American Society recently filled Dorton Arena at the State Fairgrounds with art, dance and vendors selling foods and beverages usually found only in Asia.
The fourth annual Chinese Lantern Festival in Cary saw record attendance of more than 100,000 visitors during its six-week run from late November to mid-January.
The Chinese language also is being taught to Asian and non-Asian students. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools has a Mandarin program at Glenwood Elementary. Wake County started a Mandarin immersion program at Stough Elementary in 2015.
Haining Liu, who has taught at Stough for five years, said she enjoys introducing her students to Chinese culture. Liu’s hometown is in Shandong Province, northeast of Beijing.
China’s population of almost 1.4 billion has 56 distinct ethnic groups, with Han Chinese making up the largest group. Each group has variations on its customs and festivals. Dumplings are more prevalent in the north, while egg rolls are served more frequently in the south.
Family bonds remain strong in China, and it is common for Chinese, even when fully grown with children of their own, to have many living generations living together under the same roof.
“Teaching the culture and letting them know what it means is part of the immersion program learning,” Liu said.
Stough recently held a Chinese New Year celebration with students performing traditional songs and dances. There was a puppet show, and the halls were decorated in festive yellows and reds, along with a dragon.
Chapel Hill will celebrate Chinese culture on Feb. 24 with “Lightup 2019.” It coincides with the final days of the Spring Festival.