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Chinatown And Little Saigon Are Getting Ready For The Lunar New Year, Which Is Coming Up Soon

Lunar New Year is a holiday that marks the first day of the lunar calendar, which is Feb. 1 this year. People of Asian descent celebrate it all over the world. In each culture, there are different ways to welcome in the new year. Eat certain foods, go to family events, pray to your ancestors, and decorate your home with things that are supposed to bring good fortune and prosperity. These are some of the things that people do as part of their traditions.

During Lunar New Year celebrations, Oakland Chinatown and “Little Saigon,” a Vietnamese business district between 1st and 12th streets, are often the places where people go to party. This is how these neighborhoods get traditional dishes, snacks, good luck items, and community get-togethers from small businesses.

Some of these celebrations have been thrown off by the omicron surge. Oakland’s Chinatown Chamber of Commerce is having a smaller-than-usual party at the Pacific Renaissance Plaza. This year, the Oakland Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce and the Oakland Asian Cultural Center are both having smaller events, as well. The OVCC will have a party at Clinton Park this Saturday, and the OACC will have dance and cooking workshops, as well as a meeting at their offices in Chinatown.

If you want to start the new year at home, many businesses are still selling their goods to people who want to do it. Some shop owners in Chinatown and Little Saigon told the Oaklandside what they had to say about Lunar New Year items they sell, how this year is different from the last time, and how the pandemic has affected their communities.

For more than five years now, Kelly and Kenneth Lam, who run Kelly Smoke Shop on 9th Street, have sold kumquat trees out of a nondescript commercial space on Webster Street. During the Chinese and Vietnamese new year, many people think that trees with green leaves and yellow fruit are symbols of good fortune.

There are a lot of flower and retail shops on Webster that sell these trees during this time. The Lams seem to have the most trees in the area.

As a contractor, Kenneth works for a lot of people. When he stops to help Kelly with the seasonal plant business, he says that it’s a lot of work. It starts at five in the morning when we go to local stores and buy them. Then, my wife makes each tree by hand.

Kelly carefully trims each branch, wraps the pots in shiny red paper, and adds red bows to the trees to make them look like Christmas trees. For a single tree to be ready, it can take between one and three hours. Kelly will sometimes stay up all night to make sure each tree looks its best.

Kenneth says that most of the bigger trees in the area have already been bought by restaurants and are waiting to be picked up. People have been through a lot during the pandemic, so we try to help each other out. Lam said that he and his wife have been grateful for the help they have received. This is especially true because Kelly’s Smoke Shop was almost broken into last year.

Kenneth says that selling kumquat trees is a good distraction from the stress of working during a pandemic. It helps the Lams think about the positive things about the new year. The last two years, everything has been put on hold. But life will go on. From now on, I think things will get better.

It’s called “Little Saigon.”

A family-owned Vietnamese restaurant called Pho Vy is on International Boulevard. Owner Tuan Nguyen and his family work hard to make customers feel like they’re part of the family. Nguyen: “They come here for comfort food, and we build relationships with our customers so that they feel like they can talk to us about anything.”

For the Vietnamese New Year, the East Oakland native makes traditional Vietnamese dishes for free. She usually serves up big bowls of pho and porridge every day. One time last year, Pho Vy put on a communal meal for its customers. They got to try dishes like banh tet, rice wrapped in banana leaves and filled with meat or bean sprouts. Nguyen’s parents gave out traditional red envelopes to the people who came to his funeral. People said thank you by giving them words of gratitude.

“I wanted to show a lot of people what Lunar New Year is all about,” Nguyen said, “to show people that it’s not just a holiday—it’s also about paying respect to our elders and things like that.”

This year, Nguyen has decided not to hold the event at all because there has been a big rise in omicron cases recently. “I think people who saw the event last year are going to be shocked that we won’t be hosting it this year,” he said. There are still a lot of things that Nguyen wants to do for the holidays. He and his family are still trying to figure out if they can do them.

Still, Nguyen is happy that Pho Vy is going into its sixth year of business and that they can serve the food they love to the people in their neighborhood. “We want to be good role models in our neighborhood and get people to help out,” he said.

It’s hard for other businesses in the area, like Sun Hop Fat 1 Supermarket, a grocery store on E 12th Street that’s been open 32 years, to get their Lunar New Year goods. Lynn Truong, the owner of the store, says that most of the things she usually buys at this time, like holiday cookies, haven’t come in because of problems with the global supply chain. As a result, this is not good news for her. People from Cambodia, China, and Vietnam usually go to the market at this time to buy New Year’s gifts. In time, Truong will be too late. “I’ll have to get rid of them.”

Truong doesn’t have anything of her own to sell, but she thinks it’s important for people in her neighborhood to get out and celebrate the holiday in any way they can. People don’t leave their homes during COVID, so Truong wants them to go out during the new year. I want them to have fun even though they’re still afraid.