Lunar New Year begins today

By Ed Brock

Steve Liaw of Stockbridge is hoping that 2004, the Year of the Monkey, will be an auspicious one.

Liaw's employees at Lee's Golden Buddha Chinese restaurant in Jonesboro sat down to their New Year's feast Wednesday night, and though today is officially the beginning of the lunar New Year, he said the festivities will go on for 15 days.

"In our country nobody works on New Year," Liaw said. "It's a big holiday."

In the Chinese zodiac, or the Hsia calendar, the Monkey is symbolized by wood sitting on top of metal. This year's element is wood.

People born in the Year of the Monkey are said to be fun-loving and cheerful, sociable and intelligent and very lucky. Julius Caesar, Harry S. Truman, Leonardo da Vinci and actors Will Smith, Elizabeth Taylor and Jennifer Anniston were born under this sign, according to one Web site on the subject, and the last Year of the Monkey was in 1992.

His brother is a Monkey, Liaw said, but he is a Goat.

Like most Chinese people in the Atlanta area, Liaw said he would go to the New Year's celebration at the Chinese Cultural Center at 5377 New Peachtree Road in Chamblee. From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. there will be lion and dragon dances performed at the center and traditional Chinese food.

The dining rooms at the Golden Buddha, where Liaw is the manager, have been bedecked in red and gold decorations that will stay on the tables for three days. During this time Chinese people also give "ang pow," or donations of money for good luck, to children.

Ordinarily they would visit a Buddhist temple, Liaw said, but there aren't any "real" temples in Atlanta.

Though the lunar New Year is commonly called Chinese New Year, the same celebration occurs in Vietnam, said Sister Christine Truong My Hanh of Good Shepherd Services. Hanh oversees the Vietnamese community center in Forest Park.

Born in Vietnam, Hanh also lived in Hong Kong for a while, so she has experienced the holiday in both cultures.

"New Year is the birthday for everybody," Hanh said. "Most of us will be going home early and cleaning everything. Today if you're the boss all your staff will give you gifts."

Those gifts consist of candy, but there is also a traditional New Year dumpling made from sticky rice and wrapped in banana leaves that serves two purposes.

First, the dumplings can be boiled and kept for some time, which is necessary since during New Year the kitchen god is sent to heaven, taking the hearth fire with him.

"We do believe the god of the kitchen knows everything about our family," Hanh said. "So he goes back to heaven to report."

That means the people must make changes in their life according to the kitchen god's report, but it is here where the sticky-rice dumpling serves its second purpose. They hope the kitchen god will eat some of the dumplings, Hanh said, and will not be able to open his mouth to make his report.

People don't curse on New Year's and if someone owes money they must pay it tonight. Like the Chinese ang pow, Vietnamese people give "li xi" in red envelopes. Some Korean and Japanese people also celebrate the lunar New Year, Hanh said.

Thailand, however, is on a completely different calendar that is closer to the one used in India.

Calendars showing the different animals of the Chinese zodiac and their most recent and upcoming years are available online and in bookstores. The Manila Bulletin Online has some predictions for this coming Year of the Monkey.

Rats, Oxes, Snakes, Sheep and, of course, Monkeys will have a good year. Tigers should beware since "setbacks and irritations will test your patience and ability to endure" while Dragons and Rabbits will have a "mixed" or "fairly good" year, respectively.

In general, the year will be "characterized by challenge," marked by scientific discovery, the assassination of a prominent world leader, an improvement in Pope John Paul II's health and widespread drought.

It's been more than 10 years since Liaw has been home for New Year, and he said that now, with two children, he's going to have to make the best celebration he can in his new land.

"Of course everybody likes to go home for New Year," Liaw said. "But it's too expensive."