Lunar New Year, a holiday that marks the first day of the lunar calendar—Feb. 1 this year —is celebrated throughout the world, particularly by people of Asian descent. Each culture has its unique ways of welcoming in the new year. Traditions can involve eating certain foods, visiting family members, putting on large events, praying to ancestors, and decorating the home with items meant to bring prosperity and good luck.
Lunar New Year celebrations are often hosted in Oakland Chinatown and “Little Saigon”, a Vietnamese business district between 1st and E 12th streets. These neighborhoods rely on small business owners to supply traditional dishes, snacks, good luck items, and organize community get-togethers.
The omicron surge has upended some of these festivities. The Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce announced a smaller-than-usual celebration at the Pacific Renaissance Plaza. The Oakland Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce and Oakland Asian Cultural Center are also opting for smaller gatherings this year. The OVCC will host a get-together at Clinton Park this Saturday, and the OACC will offer a series of virtual dance performances and cooking workshops, as well as an in-person gathering at their offices in Chinatown this weekend.
Many businesses are also continuing to sell their wares to residents who want to usher in the new year at home. The Oaklandside spoke with a few shop owners in Chinatown and Little Saigon about the Lunar New Year items they offer, how this year differs from previous years, and reflections on the toll the pandemic has had on their communities.
Husband-and-wife duo Kelly and Kenneth Lam, who own Kelly Smoke Shop on 9th Street, have been selling kumquat trees for over five years in a nondescript commercial space on Webster Street. These trees hold a special meaning to many during Chinese and Vietnamese new year celebrations because their green leaves and yellow fruit are seen as symbolizing prosperity.
Lots of flower and retail shops on Webster can be spotted selling these trees during this time, but the Lams have what seems to be the largest selection in the neighborhood.
“It’s pretty hard work,” said Kenneth, who pauses his work as a contractor to help Kelly with the seasonal plant business. “We wake up at five in the morning to pick them up from local vendors, and then my wife prepares each tree by hand.”
Kelly carefully trims each branch, wraps the pots with shiny red paper, and adorns the trees with red bows. Preparation for a single tree can take between one to three hours, depending on its size. Kelly will sometimes work through the night to make sure each tree is perfectly presented.
Kenneth says most of the larger trees have already been purchased by restaurants in the area and are waiting to be picked up. “A majority of them have gone through hard times during the pandemic, so we try to support each other.” Lam said that he and his wife have been grateful for support, especially considering that Kelly’s Smoke Shop experienced an attempted break-in last year.
Kenneth says selling kumquat trees is a welcome distraction from the stresses of working during a pandemic, one that helps the Lams focus on the more positive aspects of the new year. “Everything has been put on hold for the last two years, but life will go on. I think everything will get better from here on,” Kenneth said.
At Pho Vy, a family-owned Vietnamese restaurant on International Boulevard, owner Tuan Nguyen and his relatives work hard to make sure customers feel at home. “They come here for comfort food, and we build relationships with customers to the point where they feel like they can talk to us about anything,” Nguyen said.
The East Oakland native usually serves up large bowls of piping hot pho and porridge daily but prepares traditional Vietnamese New Year meals for customers for free. Last year, Pho Vy hosted a communal meal where customers were treated to dishes like banh tet, rice rolled in banana leaf stuffed with meat or mung beans, and thit kho, a braised pork belly and egg dish. Nguyen’s parents handed out traditional red envelopes to attendees, and attendees paid their respects by sharing 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 to cancel the event altogether due to the recent surge in omicron cases. “I think people who experienced [the event] last year are going to be shocked that we won’t be hosting it,” he said. Nguyen still hopes to serve traditional holiday meals, but he and his family are still deciding whether or not they have the capacity to do so.
Still, Nguyen is grateful that Pho Vy is entering its sixth year in business and can provide the food they love to the community. “We want to be positive role models in our neighborhood and get people involved,” he said.
Other businesses in the neighborhood, like Sun Hop Fat 1 Supermarket, a grocery store on E 12th Street that’s been open for 32 years, are struggling to procure their usual Lunar New Year goods. Owner Lynn Truong said most of the items she typically orders during this time, like holiday cookies, haven’t arrived due to ongoing global supply chain issues. This is disappointing for her because local Cambodian, Chinese, and Vietnamese residents often shop at the market for New Year items during this time. “By the time I get them, it’ll be too late,” Truong said. “I’ll have to throw them away.”
Despite having no items of her own to sell, Truong believes it is especially important for the residents of her neighborhood to get out and celebrate the holiday however they can. “I want the community to go out during the new year because, during COVID, they never leave their homes,” Truong said. “They’re still scared, but I want them to have fun.”