By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
bartesaghi@montclairlocal.news

Saturday, Montclairians of all backgrounds will come together for the township’s largest Lunar New Year celebration to date.

The event is organized by AAPI Montclair — a grassroots organization of Asian American and Pacific Islander residents formed last year — in partnership with the Montclair Art Museum, the Montclair Center Business Improvement District, BPD Holdings and other supporters. It’ll be at the museum’s parking lot, at 3 South Mountain Ave., from 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. 

It comes the same 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.

And the event builds 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 Elementary 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 is celebrated in several Asian countries and beyond at the start of the Chinese lunisolar calendar — Feb. 1, this year — with festivities lasting 16 days. This is the year of the tiger.

Families gather to celebrate new beginnings and eat traditional food. In one custom, red envelopes or pouches with gold lettering are exchanged to wish loved ones good luck. Firecrackers are lit off to scare away evil spirits. 

“I think for most of the Asian cultures the color red signifies happiness. Gold signifies fortune and prosperity, which is a major component of it,” Winnie Wu, one of the event’s co-chairs, said. 

Food also has symbolic meaning in the Chinese tradition, Wu said. For example, the word for fish in Chinese sounds like the word for abundance. Dumplings are eaten because they represent gold nuggets that were once used as a currency. Noodles signify longevity.

“And spring rolls, when you fry them up, they look like bars of gold. That’s why we eat that,” Wu said. “Everything is just a symbol of joy and celebration and family.” 

Flowers are also common in the new year dinner celebration, in particular in Vietnamese culture, Lily Sei, another event co-chair, said. She said in Vietnamese custom, when flowers bloom, it means that the wealth will come. 

“People try to get the flowers to a certain spot and then push it to bloom on New Year’s Eve,” Sei said. 

Chang began celebrating Lunar New Year in her classrooms in 2008, encouraging her students to wear red and bright colors, and conducting activities such as Chinese brush paintings.

She said the students knew “I’m not only learning a language, I’m learning the culture.”

Chang also connected students to others from Seton Hall who were learning Mandarin. And eventually, activities moved on to the library — for instance, with booths for crafts, paper cutting and calligraphy.

“I used authentic resources. I invited people who are in the community to showcase and celebrate the festival,” Chang said. “I would have students have a short conversation with real Chinese people.”

Linda Kow, co-founder and board chair of AAPI Montclair, said the early celebrations Chang spearheaded were impactful to her and her family. 

“My kids still remember those programs, she said. “It was really such a joy celebration to see so many people coming out and volunteering their time.”

Julie Kim, co-founder of AAPI Montclair, said the organization has been planning Saturday’s event since November. With weather concerns and the recent coronavirus surge tied to the omicron variant, Kim said there were talks of canceling. But Amber Reed, the president of AAPI Montclair, convinced organizers a celebration of joy and community was needed more than ever. 

There will be activities for children, and performances for all attendees. Heated tents will keep performers, audience members and vendors warm.

“There’ll be delicious food. There’ll be lots of beautiful things to buy. We have a fantastic selection of Asian products that we procured from various Asian markets. So, there’ll be snacks,” Wu said. “There’ll be pottery. It’ll be fantastic.” 

The event will also have Dalgona, a popular Korean street food treat highlighted by the Netflix series “Squid Games.”

The event will begin with a lion dance, a traditional part of the Lunar New Year celebration meant to ward away evil spirits and bring good luck. 

Rep. Andy Kim (D-3) will be the guest of honor, speaking at 12:45 p.m. 

A martial arts presentation will be headed by Wu Shu Kung Fu Fitness of Livingston. The school district’s Mandarin program will perform. Korean drummers and fan dancers will perform as well.

A master paper cutter will conduct demonstrations in Leir Hall, inside the museum. 

“It’s a dying craft. He is very elderly and very skilled,” Wu said.  “And basically, you tell him, ‘I want a dragon’ and he takes a piece of paper and scissors and cuts you a dragon in like 30 seconds. It’s unbelievable.” 

The Junior Bees, a Filipino junior dance troupe from The Hive Dance Studio in Rahway, will close the event. 

Montclair State University professors credentialed in calligraphy will volunteer their time and lead a calligraphy workshop inside the museum. 

And of course, Kim said, “you cannot have an Asian celebration without lots of food.” Cindy Washington, another event co-chair, said there will be Korean barbecue from Kimchi Smoke in Westwood and mochi doughnuts from Mochinut’s Montclair location. There will be hot and cold bubble tea from Kung Fu Tea.

“And most of us who grew up near N.Y.C. Chinatown know about the street food bubble waffle. So, we are very excited to have that,” Washington said. 

Other Montclair vendors will also be part of the event. Dolce Federica will have special themed chocolates. Artist Tricia Ramadass will make special handmade dolls for the Lunar New Year. Pinch of Clay will have special ceramics. East Side Mags will have comic books from Asian authors. 

“Everyone’s talking about it. They’re all excited to come, and that just filled my heart,” Washington said. “Because this is for our kids, it’s for our community to come together and we’re sharing with them.”

Tickets are $5 and are on sale online through the Montclair AAPI website at aapimontclair.org. Admission is free for Montclair Art Museum members. Limited fee waivers will be available on the day of the event for people unable to pay. Masks will be required. Proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test taken within three days will be required for anyone age 5 or older.

A portion of the proceeds from the event will be donated to Kaija Jung Andersen Memorial Scholarship, which honors the life of a second grade girl from Montclair.

Editor’s note: Amber Reed, referenced in the story above, is married to Justin Jamail, a member of the Montclair Local’s governing board. 

This post has been updated to correct the spelling of the Kaija Jung Andersen Memorial.