By KATE ALBRIGHT
About 2,000 people — state representatives, local leaders and community members — came together on the Montclair Art Museum grounds Saturday for Montclair’s largest Lunar New Year celebration to date.
Organized by AAPI Montclair, a grassroots organization of Asian American and Pacific Islander residents formed last year, the event was the group’s first Lunar New Year celebration.
The celebration Saturday also built on the recognition of the holiday fostered by Vicky Chang, the Montclair school district’s supervisor of World Languages and ESL, who taught Mandarin for 14 years at Nishuane School. Chang celebrated Lunar New Year in her classrooms, and later helped bring events marking the holiday to the Montclair Public Library.
The Lunar New Year celebration featured performances by Wu Shu Kung Fu Fitness, Korean drummers, the Montclair school district’s Mandarin Program, Korean Traditional Dance Of Choomnoori and the Junior Bees of the Hive Dance Studio. Guests could also practice calligraphy, participate in craft making and partake in an array of vendors.
Amber Reed, an AAPI Montclair member and one of the organizers, said those involved with the event weren’t sure how the community would respond.
“To see so many people here sharing in our traditions and sharing our excitement, that’s been really powerful,” Reed said. “We all dream that our kids will feel a sense of belonging, more belonging than we felt [as children]. And today is a day that definitely brought that future closer.”
Reed, a Korean American who was adopted, said she didn’t have access to Lunar New Year celebrations when she was growing up. Being part of the AAPI community in Montclair has been powerful for her and her family — they have discovered teeokguk, a Korean rice cake soup, and her children have enjoyed the tradition of bowing to their parents, wishing them good fortune, she said.
“I just love that days like this show my kids that being Asian isn’t a burden,” Reed said. “It’s a privilege and a joy. That’s a feeling I don’t think we would have without AAPI Montclair.”
Becoming part of an AAPI community was also something attendee Daisy Roble had wanted for a long time, unable to experience it as a child growing up in Rhode Island. Roble said she was thrilled watching her niece perform with the Montclair Mandarin Program.
“I was really moved that there were so many people who came out to help celebrate the Lunar New Year and really embraced the Asian American culture that is thriving here,” Roble said. “I hope that as we continue, there’ll be more opportunities for events like this because it really shows people coming together. And that’s very important, especially these days.”
Roble’s son, Kai Roble, said he enjoyed seeing his cousin perform in the Dragon Dance Parade. But his favorite part of the day was watching the fast work of master paper cutter Hou-Tien Cheng. Practicing the traditional Chinese art of paper cutting that he learned as a boy in Taiwan, Cheng made Kai a dragon, in honor of his cousin’s dragon dance.
Rep. Andy Kim (D-3), the first Asian American to represent New Jersey in Congress, was the celebration’s guest of honor. Many came to know Kim last year through viral photos that showed him clearing debris in the Capitol in the early hours of Jan. 7 after a mob stormed the Capitol the day before.
“I know the Asian American community — the AAPI community — we’ve gone through a lot over the last year,” Kim said to the crowd, with his son in his arms. “But what we recognize is that when we come together, and we have that community, that is something worth fighting for.”
Montclair is stronger because of its diversity, Mayor Sean Spiller said at the celebration.
“I can think of no better place than Montclair to celebrate the steps forward that we’re seeing,” Spiller said. “Communities like this are the model for how strong we can be when we do lift every voice, when we do celebrate our differences and understand that that is the core of our strength.”
Raj Bath, an aid to Gov. Phil Murphy, shared part of a proclamation from the governor about recent legislation requiring Asian American and Pacific Islander history to be part of the state’s K-12 curriculum. New Jersey is the second state to adopt such legislation.
“Thank you to AAPI Montclair for the work that you did on pushing forward the AAPI curriculum education bill,” the proclamation states. “Through the legislature, we were more than happy to sign it the moment it hit our desk, but the work could not have been done without great leaders, such as yourself.”
Earlier this month, the Montclair Board of Education agreed, for the first time, to make Lunar New Year a district holiday — giving students off in future years, whenever the holiday falls on a weekday.
AAPI Montclair formed in spring of 2021 in response to the rise of anti-Asian hate in Montclair and nationwide. The Lantern Festival for Justice and Remembrance of May 2021 marked its first community-wide event.
Amber Reed is married to Justin Jamail, a member of the Montclair Local’s governing board.