‘It’s a chance to restart’: Hundreds celebrate Lunar New Year in San Diego with food, music, wishes

Performers entertain the crowd at the Lunar New Year Festival in City Heights on Sunday.
Performers from Southern Sea Dragon and Lion Dance entertain the crowd at the Lunar New Year Festival in City Heights on Sunday. The three-day festival at Officer Jeremy Henwood Memorial Park included traditional food and performances, arts and cultural exhibits.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

News of Los Angeles-area Lunar New Year shooting did not deter large crowds from attending festival in Little Saigon area of City Heights


The cold winter wind shook the branches of more than a dozen bright red and pink cherry blossom trees — artificial trees crafted by volunteers to decorate a City Heights park on Sunday morning, the first day of the Lunar New Year.

The tree branches held scores of anonymous wishes for the new year, written in black marker on rectangular pieces of paper.

Most wishes asked for health, wealth and peace. Others bore desires “to find my person,” “a good job that lasts for me,” “healthy relationships,” “a better life for me and my family,” and “freedom.”

Hundreds of families flocked to Officer Jeremy Henwood Memorial Park for the third day of the 13th Lunar New Year Festival. The event was organized by Little Saigon Foundation, which has worked to support the Little Saigon business district in City Heights since 2008.

Lunar New Year, which is based on the timing of the new moon, is a revered tradition for many Asian countries and Asian-American communities. Festival attendees wrote wishes, received oracle readings, ate street food and more to celebrate and ask for good luck, health and peace in the coming year.

But those hopes for peace were quickly tainted by the early-morning news that 10 people had been shot and killed in a dance studio the night before in Monterey Park, a suburb east of Los Angeles that is predominantly Asian-American.

San Diego police said there were no known threats in San Diego but said they provided an increased presence at local Lunar New Year events Sunday in light of the shooting.

Oanh Tran spends time with his granddaughter Ellie Sy at an exhibit at the Lunar New Year Festival in City Heights on Sunday.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Su Nguyen, event coordinator for the festival and founder of Little Saigon Foundation, said he didn’t feel nervous about the festival but his heart “is melting down” after hearing about the shooting.

The shooting was more than just about the loss of life, Nguyen said — it was a blow to the entire Asian community, considering the day the shooter chose.

“When I first heard about it, I thought, ‘Why this day?’ We want to celebrate, but how can we celebrate with that bad news?” Nguyen said.

Still, the mass shooting did not appear to deter large crowds from attending Sunday, and street parking was full for several blocks around the festival.

The smell of steaming pork buns and coconut pandan waffles wafted in the air while children and adults munched on barbecued squid on a stick, shrimp spring rolls and mango sticky rice. Kids ran on the jungle gym playground while other families watched musical performances and took pictures. Several families were dressed up in bright red, blue, pink or purple ao dai, the Vietnamese traditional silk tunic worn for Lunar New Year.

Sisters Caly and Nyny Tran drove more than an hour from Lake Forest to come to the festival.

To get ready for the new year, the sisters cleaned their house the night before and took a shower — it’s bad luck to sweep floors, take out the trash or wash hair on the Lunar New Year day because it symbolizes throwing or washing away one’s wealth. Every new year as a family they eat banh tet, a Vietnamese dish featuring sticky rice with pork and mung bean wrapped in banana leaves.

“It’s a chance to restart,” Nyny Tran said.

Proceeds from this year’s festival and previous years’ festivals will go toward building a mini-park on El Cajon Boulevard near Chamoune Avenue that will be called the Boat People Garden. The park is important because it will be the first landmark that Little Saigon can call its own, Nguyen said.

By “boat people,” Nguyen said, the garden will honor hundreds of thousands of immigrants who have struggled and sacrificed while arriving and living in America, including the Vietnamese refugees who started arriving in the 1970s. He said it will honor the immigrants who couldn’t make it here because they perished at sea, as well as the parents who brought their children here for a better life.