For me, the ‘regular’ New Year has always been supremely disappointing. Due in part to globally inflated expectation, the night has never lived up to the description my co-workers provide in the annual ‘New Year’s Eve in East Williamsburg!’ email chain. If you’re new to the city, this means you’ll probably end up in some ‘charming’ warehouse off the Graham Avenue stop with 60 people you’ll never see again.
You’ll begin to take stock of the evening at 11pm, 30 minutes after half your friends go down (hard) for the count. Following a midnight ‘champagne toast’ that was supposed to be included in the $150 ticket fee, you’ll wander home, shocked that you fell for it. And then you’ll do it all again next year.
Chinese New Year, however, is different. Strip away the expensive parties and sharp wardrobes, add a few dozen homemade Chinese lion costumes and 400 million confetti launchers, and you’ll be getting close. Though I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy several Chinese New Year celebrations in New York City, I knew I had to go all out this year. And we’re just getting started.
We met at Jing Fong Restaurant on Elizabeth Street at 10:30am, 2 (or possibly 36) hours after we should have gotten there. The wait at Chinatown’s most lavish Dim Sum restaurant was, according to the hostesses, 1 hour. We would later discover that this was a perpetual waiting time, one that would never actually come. Jing Fong is always busy; on the New Year, it’s JFK hopped up on natural Chinese energy supplements.
Since we wanted to eat before the day was over, we walked next door to Oriental Garden. At 1/75 the size of Jing Fong, we were surprised that the wait was as short as it was. After eating through 16-20 amazing plates, we were shocked. Over the course of an hour, we sampled lotus leaf sticky rice, chive, seafood, taro, and pork dumplings, stuffed eggplant, baked roast pork buns, stuffed spicy peppers, and plenty of other Dim Sum selections. Everything (yes, everything) was wildly delicious, and we all walked out for less than $20.
Our next destination was Mott street, just one block west, where a celebration was brewing. Chinese vendors battling to sell 2/$5 confetti launchers could be heard from Bowery to Broadway, and men in ornately detailed Chinese lion costumes traveled door to door to help local businesses usher in an auspicious new year. All the while, delighted children collected decorated envelops full of good luck coins and one dollar bills. The crescendo came with the arrival of a gigantic hand-made snake that wove through the crowd to mark the beginning of its year.
But it was among the brave, fallen confetti launchers on Mott Street where I found it – the greatest purchase I’ve ever made, and the greatest purchase I’ll still have made by time I reach my death bed, likely 150-200 years from now. I’m speaking, of course, of my own personal Chinese lion mask. See figure below for more information.
Though I was not born into this culture, I’m endlessly grateful that I have been welcomed into it by Chinatown’s locals. With the mask on, I transformed entirely. I spent the rest of the afternoon quite literally parading around, mimicking more experienced lions, jumping in photos (by request or otherwise), and genuinely becoming part of a culture I have grown to respect so much.
5 hours later, with a lifetime’s worth of confetti forever sewn into my clothing, I left the celebration and traveled back to Harlem. But the celebration didn’t leave me. Though New York’s biggest New Year celebration in Flushing is still 5 days away, Mott Street on Chinese New Year is a pretty close second, and I know I’ll be back every year for as long as I’m able. And I hope you will, too. Happy New Year!
Don’t forget to try out Oriental Garden!
14 Elizabeth Street
New York, NY 10013
Photograph by Luke Kingma
Read more of Luke Kingma’s Sunday in Chinatown column.