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Subtopic : The Willamette Valley: Welcoming the New Year

Themes: Social Relations, Religion, Folklife

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Celebrating Chinese New Year
Portland, 1928 (detail)
OrHi 84049

Let us begin in winter with our multiple New Year’s celebrations. Though many think of mainstream American culture as “normal” and thus not “cultural,” all people develop cultural practices and beliefs. “Official” December 31 New Year celebrations include parties where many drink to health and resolve to change behaviors. These practices reflect American beliefs in self-improvement and progress—folk beliefs not shared by more fatalistic and less individually oriented cultures.

Asian and Asian-American communities reckon the New Year on the lunar calendar. Chinese New Year starts at sunset on the day of the second moon after winter solstice. Families clean house to sweep away bad luck and share sayings, called spring couplets, such as “May all who come and go from here have good fortune.” A feast of six to twelve courses groans on the tables of homes in Chinatown, where two dancing lions kick off the celebration. These practices reinforce the solidarity of Portland’s Chinese community. They also trigger reminders of the struggles Chinese people endured locally and nationally.

Chinese immigrants settled here early in the 1850s. They established laundries, restaurants, and shops, mined for gold, and worked on the railroad. The Oregon constitution forbade the Chinese from buying or owning land. In 1882, the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act denying citizenship to current residents and forbidding entry to others. Despite these discriminatory laws and practices, Portland’s Chinese community and their cultural practices endured.

The Iu Mien, an ethnic minority group from Laos, celebrates the New Year in February. Look for the bright red and black traditional shirts, pants, sashes, and turbans made by hand and embroidered in patterns learned by young girls beginning at about age six. Such was the case for master artist Khen Chiem Saepham, whose grandmother in Laos taught her to embroider. Whether her children will learn embroidery or the art of the moua, the doughnut-shaped Mien baby hats, will depend on multiple circumstances. Economics, support from the community, and public arts programs can all influence which traditions endure.

As winter turns toward spring, the Lao community who settled in Oregon after the Vietnam War, gathers at their Buddhist temple or wat in Northeast Portland for their New Year celebration, Boun Pi Mai. Imagine yourself at the Baci ceremony seated before the pakhouan (altar) as the maw pawn (religious leader) urges you to forget the past and welcome the good in life. These traditions serve as a vital link for people who have been traumatized by war and relocation, even as they adapt clothing, ceremonies, and foods to new circumstances.

© Joanne B. Mulcahy, 2005.

Themes: Social Relations,Religion,Folklife

Regions: Willamette Valley,Portland Metropolitan Area

Date: Present

Author: Joanne B. Mulcahy

Each season fosters celebrations particular to its traditions, its pastimes, and its cultural expectations. 

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News Article, Passage of the Chinese Bill
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Portland Chinatown, 1886

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Iu-Mien Sixty-Year Calendar

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