During the past two weeks, elaborate festivities worldwide have marked the 15-day celebration of the Chinese Lunar New Year, which officially commenced on Jan. 22. According to the dictates of the Chinese horoscope, this year, 4702, is the year of the Monkey, with a yang aspect and wood element-a combination that last occurred in 1944.
Among vendor booths at San Diego Chinese Center's Chinese New Year and Cultural Faire, good luck charms-animal representations, calligraphy and, especially, all manner of red trinkets-were in high evidence.
For some attendees, it may have come as a surprise to learn that downtown San Diego actually has its own Chinatown-one decidedly less conspicuous than those of other large California cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Or as one 30-something Chinese-American put it, "When I was growing up, there really wasn't a center of activity for the Chinese community. San Diego's too conservative-not very multicultural."
But Dr. Lilley Cheng, president of the nonprofit San Diego Chinese Historical Museum (SDCHM) maintained that is changing through a "concerted effort" on the part of San Diego's Pan-Chinese community.
"This is the 22nd year of the Chinese New Year ceremony [in San Diego], but it has not always been downtown," explained Cheng, a native of Taiwan who received her higher education in the United States and has been a professor of speech pathology at San Diego State University for 10 years. Wearing a fuchsia silk jacket, richly embroidered with butterflies, and pleated chiffon pants in honor of the holiday, she remembered previous venues, including the Del Mar Fairgrounds, which were "difficult for people to get to and just not as well-attended," before the festival moved downtown several years ago.
Cheng described the block of Third Avenue between Island and J streets as the heart of San Diego's original Chinatown, which, founded in the late-19th century, extended from Second to Sixth avenues and J to Market streets. Because the area also hosted a good number of Japanese, Filipinos and Hawaiians, it has been designated the Asian/Pacific Thematic Historic District, part of an overall downtown redevelopment program.
From the second-floor balcony of a new Sun Yat Sen Memorial Extension-an SDCHM expansion project located across the street from the museum-Cheng pointed out Third Avenue buildings of particular historical relevance. One of the oldest, dating back to 1888, was once occupied by Ah Quin, an unofficial Chinatown "mayor" whose family operated a produce market on the site from 1914 to 1986. The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association Building, an early central gathering place for San Diego's Chinese community built in 1911 by a faction of the Chinese Free Masons, still attracts Chinese senior citizens who reside downtown, particularly in nearby housing projects.
"Many of the buildings have to remain the same-especially the façades," Cheng said. "If the structure is good, we keep it. Otherwise, the inside must be refurbished."
She added that once completed, the museum annex will feature "a first emperor bronze statue and two stone lions... putting the footsteps of our forefathers here downtown."
As for the ancient Chinese practice of New Year soothsaying, Cheng smiled and said such cultural aspects were "most interesting. We have some old Chinese people who actually make predictions."
Tracking down one who could do so in English proved difficult, as did finding a rare bilingual version of the popular Chinese calendar of predictions for the coming year. However, numerous prediction websites can be found online. A typical site informs visitors that from "4th February 2004, we enter a new 20 year feng shui cycle called "Age of 8'" that promises "new opportunities and revolutionary changes."
Cheng explained that each year takes on the quality of one of the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac and people born in that year also take on special qualities. "Monkey is strategic, a planner, tricky, chivalrous, fun, interesting," she said.
Later, at a typical New Year's gathering in a private home in the district, Cheng and a group of longtime friends, with ties dating back to their pre-emigration days in Taiwan, engaged in one of the most important traditions of Chinese New Year-eating. As Chinese zither music drifted up from the street below, the friends discussed matchmaking for the host's son, laughed heartily at jokes made in "Chinglish" and proposed numerous toasts.
"This can go all night long," Cheng said.
The room quieted down as an impossibly fit 93-year-old Tai Chi master performed a narrated demonstration of her skills. Cheng translated: "Eyes straight. Movement very slow. Breathing in and breathing out. You can overcome any harshness through softness. Every day you can improve your life, philosophy, friendship."
Doling out portions of thread-thin noodles, Cheng recalled the theory that the Chinese invented spaghetti.
"And even pizza," she announced, somewhat mischievously. "We invented everything-if you believe that!"