In Brooklyn’s Chinatown, Some Family New Year’s Reunions Aren’t Complete

To welcome the lunar new year, Sunday's celebration in the Chinese community of Sunset Park, Brooklyn featured lion dancing, a traditional part of the holiday festivities. Thousands came to see the performances organized by the Brooklyn Chinese-American Association. (Annie Wu/NY City Lens)

To welcome the lunar new year, Sunday’s celebration in the Chinese community of Sunset Park, Brooklyn featured lion dancing, a traditional part of the holiday festivities. Thousands came to see the performances organized by the Brooklyn Chinese-American Association. (Annie Wu/NY City Lens)

On the main boulevard of Eighth Ave. in Sunset Park on Sunday, young children dressed in Chinese traditional clothing blew bubbles through their newly bought bubble machines and chased their siblings and friends down the street, while their parents twisted open large tubes of party poppers that shot colorful bits of paper into the sky—and back down again. Shops played popular new year tunes with lyrics that offered good fortune, and street vendors busily sold toys, cotton candy, and balloon swords.

The Lunar New Year, which falls on a different day each year depending on the cyclical changes of the moon’s orbit, is a big holiday for the Chinese living in Brooklyn’s Chinatown community in Sunset Park. On Sunday, the new year parade and celebration organized by the Brooklyn Chinese-American Association drew thousands of spectators and dozens of elected officials to watch the lion dancing, firecracker display, and performances by children and elderly at local schools and senior centers.

But for many new immigrants from the Fujian province, the holiday isn’t quite as jubilant because many family members work so far away they can’t make it home to enjoy the traditional dinner.

“Usually, we want to do a reunion dinner for the new year, but we can’t help it since they have to work,” said Nancy Lin, 29, in Mandarin Chinese.

Lin is waiting for her husband to return home from working in Massachusetts. Like many of her relatives who emigrated from Fujian province in southeast China, her husband works in the restaurant business and returns to Sunset Park every two weeks to visit her. Because the restaurant was still open on Friday, the first day of the new year, her husband was not able to return in time for the holiday. With relatives working in Ohio too, it’s difficult for Lin’s whole family to get together.

Last year, Lin herself had to work out of state over the new year’s holiday, so this is her first time celebrating in New York City. “I didn’t know this is how they celebrate the new year here, but it’s pretty good,” she said as she sprayed a can of party streamer at her relatives’ children.

Despite the missing fathers in the neighborhood, the new year’s celebration on Sunday teemed with children and families. Many of them were Cantonese-speaking Chinese, who were once the primary residents of Brooklyn’s Chinatown. In recent years, more Fujianese have moved into the neighborhood, while the earlier Cantonese immigrants have moved out to quieter, cleaner suburbs, explained James Wong, program assistant at the Brooklyn Chinese-American Association.

Many Cantonese still shop and visit in the neighborhood, but don’t live here anymore. “The Cantonese are trying to move out of Eighth Avenue because of the competition and real estate prices that are sky high,” Wong said, as the increased demand from Fujianese has driven up property values. The Cantonese, he said, are moving into other Brooklyn neighborhoods instead, like Sheepshead Bay.

Yang Xiuhua, 31, came to the parade with her son and daughter to let them experience Chinese tradition up close. “A lot of kids who grow up here don’t know the traditional culture. This is their chance to see how their parents’ generation celebrates,” she said. Back home in Fujian province, celebrations would last until the 15th of the new year, the last day of the traditional holiday season. But now in America, the festivities are concentrated on one day, Yang said.

Yang’s husband works at a Chinese restaurant in the city, so she gets to spend every day with her family. But many of her friends are not as fortunate because their husbands work in neighboring states.

“This year, new year’s day falls on a Friday, the busiest day of the week, so probably many people didn’t get to come home,” Yang said. Yang explained that in the restaurant business, days off are usually on the weekdays, when there are not as many customers. Some of her friends whose husbands work far from New York City only get to see them twice a year.

The families stay  in Sunset Park because they feel more at home in a neighborhood with fellow Chinese immigrants. “Eighth Ave. is a Chinese community, so when they return here, they feel more like family,” said Joyce Guo, 28, who was enjoying the new year festivities on Sunday with several cousins and their children.

This year was particularly special for Guo because her whole family was reunited for the lunar new year even though many of her relatives work in restaurants in Philadelphia, New Jersey and Connecticut. “It’s very rare for us to get together like this,” she said. “So I’m very happy.”

Yang Yuyan, 33, said her husband now works in the city, so he was home for the holiday, even though he opted to stay home to rest. “See, we still get to have lots of fun,” Yang said, picking up her child and walking back into the crowd.