Phases of the Moon: the Lunar New Year in Brooklyn's Past

Chinese immigration to the United States started in earnest around 1850s, during the California “Gold Rush”. Thousands of Chinese laborers poured in from across the Pacific to work the mines. Once the Gold Rush subsided, some of them returned home to their families and plied their kin and their neighbors with stories of fabulous riches waiting to be made in America, thus spurring a new wave of immigrants. But most of Chinese workers stayed and began their eastward drive, toward the Atlantic. By 1890, New York saw the establishment of its now-famous Chinatown, which counted nearly 3000 residents.

Try to imagine how it might have been at that time: a new immigrant group, whose members looked, acted, dressed, ate and spoke so dramatically different from the majority of New York citizens, predominantly of the European and African ancestry. Most importantly, the newcomers vied for the same jobs as the locals. Perhaps, this is why an atmosphere of animosity was quite pervasive; local newspaper articles from the 1880s and 1890s, dedicated to the celebration of the Lunar New Year, were full of shockingly gleeful stereotypes and misconceptions about this new group of New Yorkers. Chinese laundries, eating habits, opium smoking and even accents were all dragged into the articles which were supposed to report on a festive occasion.

Within a decade or so, by the early 1900s, as the Chinese immigrant community grew in number and in political significance, the tenor of the articles started to change. Now, the locals started to discover new dimensions to the Lunar New Year celebrations. The fact that the Chinese made sure that old debts were settled before the end of the year was universally admired. The festive decorations of the Chinese neighborhoods were described in fine detail and much complimented.

However, a firecracker controversy was brewing! As early as in 1910 firecrackers and fireworks were prohibited by the police during the New Year festivities.

Fast-forward to the 1920s and you will find that the Chinese New Year celebration had already become an important social event, and not only for the Chinese. In 1922, The Brooklyn Standard Union reported on the holiday banquet attended by 200 of the borough’s most important citizens. The guest speakers were Guy Maine (Yee Kai Man) and Dr. Tehyi Hsieh (also known as the “Roosevelt of China”). The dinner was delayed because of the queue for Mr. Maine – the guests lined up with their questions about China.

 

 

 

Chinoiserie was gaining a foothold with Brooklynites, as you can see on these images from the 1950s.

 


 


The celebration of the Lunar New Year at the Brooklyn Public Library has become a long-standing tradition. It is fascinating to compare these two images, both taken at the Brooklyn Public Library, but separated by nearly 60 years: an unidentified performer from the 1950s and Grace Cheng from 2010s (photo by Gregg Richards).

Naturally, the Brooklyn Public Library is not the only place that is gearing up for the 2014 Lunar New Year celebration (the events at BPL are scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 1). On February 2nd, Brooklyn’s own Chinatown in Sunset Park has a full schedule of events including a now obligatory parade and – guess what – firecrackers!

One curious peace of trivia popped up when I was researching for this blogpost: Chinese and Japanese have always used flowers as a traditional way to decorate their homes for the Lunar New Year. Among the most popular flowers for these purposes were white lilies, the very same lilies that are now so obviously associated with Easter. It turns out that lilies are a comparatively new element to the Easter décor. They were introduced to the Christendom from Japan in 1850s.