Bright yellow flowers decorate the shrine in Amy Ly’s West Seattle home. Her family lights a newly purchased incense set, filling the house with the familiar smells of Lunar New Year. Her mother and grandmother are busy preparing red envelopes, filled with money for younger family members who show respect for their elders. As Ly, a senior at the University of Washington, travels back and forth between home and her University District apartment, she helps her family clean and decorate to prepare for the coming festivities. According to the Chinese zodiac, 2021 is the year of the ox; people born in the year of the ox are known for their methodical, dependable work ethic. 

A year of steadfast consistency would be a welcome respite from 2020, when COVID-19 abruptly put an end to holiday plans. Ly is half-Vietnamese and half-Chinese, and normally, her household is a lively hub during the holidays, as both sides of her large family prepare to celebrate Lunar New Year which, this year, begins Feb. 12.

Family members speaking Cantonese, Mandarin and Vietnamese usually fill the rooms with well-wishes. Now, with Phase 2 restrictions of Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Healthy Washington” reopening plan limiting indoor gatherings to a maximum of five people, Ly, who lives with her 90-year-old grandmother, will spend Lunar New Year away from much of her extended family. Red envelope exchanges will be made via car drop-off, and her family will attempt to connect with cousins, elders, aunts and uncles over Zoom.

“We’ve made it clear to each other as a household that we would not see our family,” Ly said. “Despite the fact that we do want to celebrate with them.”

As families in the Seattle area prepare for yet another holiday spent within COVID-era restrictions, some have chosen to wait rather than celebrate online or in socially distant fashion. Dr. Angela Chien, an obstetrician-gynecologist who normally spends Lunar New Year at an intimate family dinner, worries if it’s safe for her brother’s children to come in contact with their older parents.

Lunar New Year is all about “getting family together, it’s eating together,” said Chien, who drove her parents to receive their first vaccination dose Jan. 31. “It’s just a lot of things that you really aren’t supposed to be doing during a pandemic.

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“We might just wait until my parents are fully vaccinated. And then do a belated Chinese New Year celebration, which we would never normally do.”  

Holding a virtual Lunar New Year celebration might not be as feasible for older, less technologically savvy family members, said Chien, adding that her parents would rather wait until they can all be together in the same room. 

COVID-19 is not the first pandemic to weigh on the minds of Washington’s Asian and Asian American community. Many tracked the first SARS outbreak in Guangdong, China, in the early 2000s from afar. The community has come to terms with viruses of this scale and is more willing to put celebrations on hold, said Chien.  

However, keeping family and friends safe by avoiding physical contact clashes with the premise of upholding those same relationships. The decision to forgo a physical gathering highlighted tensions among Ly’s family, and she says some extended family members will still be celebrating in person. Some of her family members are skeptical about COVID-19 and the differing accounts they’ve consumed through various media sources, she said, adding that this is not the first familial rift that’s occurred since the state’s pandemic stay-at-home order began last March.

Family gatherings aren’t the only Lunar New Year celebrations that have been affected this year. For instance, in a typical year, traditional festivities for some may include a visit to a Buddhist temple. But many temples have canceled or transferred celebrations online. 

“That gathering regrounds us to like the fact that the year is coming,” said Ly, reminiscing about the annual fireworks display she would typically watch at her temple, surrounded by family and close friends. “And I think the new year is such an important marker for us and gives us so much hope.”

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Chien’s mother hasn’t been able to visit her Buddhist temple in a year, and the prospect of this year’s COVID-dampened Lunar New Year caught her by surprise. 

“It’s weird for her,” Chien said, “she sort of marches out by the lunar calendar.”

Along with a visit to a temple, families may celebrate Lunar New Year by eating out in a big, festive group. On a normal day, the Purple Dot Cafe is a central hub in the Chinatown International District, filled with the sounds of servers pushing dim sum carts around and diners chattering around plates of Asian fusion cuisine, such as the restaurant’s signature baked spaghetti. Eventually, the late-night crowd filters in and orders continue to pile in, sometimes well past 3 a.m. 

For Purple Dot Cafe owner Carol Xie and her father, who has operated the restaurant since 2013, the day-to-day rush culminated every year during Lunar New Year, one of their busiest days, she said.

But amid COVID-19 stay-home orders, the Purple Dot Cafe, along with many other restaurants in the Chinatown ID, sits quietly, save for the occasional to-go order or delivery pickup. 

“Everyone’s still trying to keep that community mindset, but it’s hard,” Xie said. “Sometimes, when I see my dad interacting with other people, he’ll still try to keep the mood up. Then, as soon as they leave, I see his face just drop, because it’s a stressful time.”

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This year, most celebrations have been canceled or moved online, but Royal Tan, an instructor at the Mak Fai Washington Kung Fu Club, which usually performs as part of the Chinatown ID’s Lunar New Year celebrations, says they still have a performance scheduled for Feb. 13 — with social distancing precautions in place, of course.   

Lion dancers from the Mak Fai Washington Kung Fu Club perform in the Chinatown International District at last year’s Lunar New Year celebrations.  (Sharon Chang)

“It’s been a tradition we’ve been doing for 30-something years,” Tan said of the performance, which typically involves performers dressed in vibrant lion costumes traveling door-to-door to the restaurants in the neighborhood. “We’ll play it safe, everyone will be following the guidelines, wearing masks.”

With roughly 200 performances during a typical year, Tan has only made it to a handful of his own family’s Lunar New Year dinners in the last two decades, and considers his fellow performers a second family. This year, the club’s performances barely number 20, nearly half of which have been prerecorded for individual clients.

Whether families choose to celebrate Lunar New Year online, in small, socially distant groups, or decide to instead wait for restrictions to lift in hope of a normal — albeit belated — celebration, COVID-19 continues to elicit both frustration and concern as we near the one-year mark of pandemic restrictions. 

This Lunar New Year does not feel “normal.” Yet, for many people, it has redefined the importance of familial celebrations they once took for granted. 

Although her family’s planned Lunar New Year Zoom call might end up being dominated by chatty aunts and uncles, Ly looks forward to connecting with an uncle who lives across the country. 

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Chien has lived in Seattle for years but has never attended any of the popular public Lunar New Year celebrations in and around the city. But she says she’s looking forward to attending one when it’s safe to do so.

“I think you take for granted that you’re always going to be able to celebrate these holidays together,” said Chien. “And then the first time you can’t, you kind of want to embrace all the things about it that you didn’t care as much about before.”

Celebrating Lunar New Year

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