BY DANIEL WINNER | Correspondent for AC JosepH Media

February seems to be a month filled with cultural diversity, as we find ourselves celebrating both Black History Month and the Lunar New Year. Chinese American communities in Burlington and Camden counties shared their culture with friends and family — and the city-wide community — in honor of the Chinese festival season.

On Saturday, Feb. 10, Cherry Hill Public Library collaborated with the Chinese School of South Jersey and the Cherry Hill Huaxia Chinese School to put on a spectacular show of traditional Chinese song and dance in their “Chinese New Year Celebration: Year of the Dragon.” That same day, Perkins Center for the Arts in Moorestown began their own series of events that will run every weekend this month. 

All this excitement demonstrates the size and influence of the Chinese American community in the southeast Philly suburbs, and the holiday season in South Jersey is far from over. If you are not familiar with the Chinese New Year, here is a bit of an explanation. 

What is the Lunar New Year?

Chinese zodiac wheel (courtesy of user RootOfAllLight of Wikimedia Commons).

The Lunar New Year — also called the “Spring Festival” — is an observance that falls on the first new moon of the year and marks the end of winter. It is actually a lunisolar celebration, which means that the time and date is calculated based on the movement of both the Sun and the Moon. It is not only celebrated among Chinese, but is popular throughout the Sinosphere, which includes places that were historically influenced by Chinese culture, such as Mongolia, Singapore, Korea, Vietnam and Japan.

This year is the Year of the Dragon, which is considered very auspicious as the dragon is the only legendary animal among the twelve zodiac signs. Ancient astronomers used to measure time based on the orbit of the farthest known planet at the time — Jupiter. It takes 12 earth years for Jupiter to complete its own orbit around the Sun, and so the use of the number twelve stuck. Animals were assigned to each number, representing the twelve months, twelve cardinal directions, twelve periods of time, and twelve seasons (a unique convention).

The twelve zodiac animals have become ingrained in the popular imagination of many cultures and societies, including those found in the United States, which may bring to mind those iconic restaurant placemats or the talismans from Kids’ WB cartoon series Jackie Chan Adventures

Cherry Hill, Camden County

Cherry Hill Public Library fired off its event with a citywide proclamation, given by Mayor David Fleischer, in recognition of the Chinese American community in the Township of Cherry Hill.

The show went on with performances in traditional song and dance, such as the famous lion dance, Chinese zither, bamboo flute, and Mongolian folk dance. Younger performers graced the floor with the children’s Chinese fan dance “I speak with the Moon” and folk drum dance “Pray for Peace.”

Mayor David Fleischer poses with library and school staff after presenting a proclamation of the Lunar New Year.
Lion Dance performed by two people in costume, believed to bring good luck.
Yang Yang on Chinese zither (called a “guzheng”).
Jasmine Jiang on bamboo flute (called a “dizi”).
Traditional Mongolian dance.
Children’s Chinese fan dance.
“Pray for Peace” girls’ folk dance.

The venue filled up as soon as the festivities went underway. Adult Services Librarian Elby Wang informed Front Runner New Jersey there were nearly 200-300 people in attendance. That wasn’t a surprise to her, given the library’s success in attracting crowds.

“We haven’t done the cultural program every year. We stopped a few years for the pandemic, but we tried different cultures every year. Last year we tried Indian [culture] for Diwali. Before the pandemic we tried the Cherry Blossom [Festival] which is Japanese.

“It’s very important to introduce this culture to this community,” Wang said about Cherry Hill. “It’s a very diversified community. For Chinese, Dragon years are the big years. We love dragon years, so that’s why I decided to do it this year. It’s pretty different for Western culture. Dragons, most of the time, are kind of evilish. But for Chinese, they represent loyalty and the elite. In the old days, in every dynasty, the emperor was [called] a ‘Dragon.’ That’s why we say that dragons are the image of loyalty.”

Head of Reference and Adult Services Tierney Miller said of the event’s outcome, “It’s very exciting. The last time we did this was in 2017. This is very special because it’s the Year of the Dragon. We couldn’t do it without buy-in from the community, folks at the Mayor’s Office, and also obviously the Chinese schools here in town, and our volunteers from the Chinese community in Cherry Hill, which is very vibrant and has been in Cherry Hill for quite a long time. We generally get a lot of folks turn out for our events, especially our multicultural events, but Chinese New Year tends to bring out people in droves. It has in the past and this year didn’t disappoint.”

“I think it’s wonderful that the township embraces diversity and allows the Chinese community to celebrate with our neighbors on this very special day,” approved Peter Chen, principal of the Chinese School of South Jersey. “It’s heartwarming to see how this community comes wanting to learn more, not just their own culture but other cultures as well. I think that will open up their eyes, whether it’s for their children or themselves.”

Pellet drums (also called “bolanggu”) with images of children.
Chinese chess (or “xiangqi”).
Students wrote the names of Pokémon in both Japanese and Chinese languages.
Two boys enjoy the show with the crowd.

“The Chinese School of South Jersey is the largest and oldest school of its kind in southern New Jersey, established in 1969 by families seeking to teach and preserve traditional Chinese language and culture,” reads the school’s website. “That mission remains the same today, and the school continues to be managed and operated by volunteer parents.”

Cherry Hill Huaxia Chinese School states on its website that it is “a not-for-profit organization established in June 2003 and hosted at Beck Middle School in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Our mission is to provide a community school that offers Chinese language (Mandarin), cultural oriented as well as talent classes to those who are ABC (American-Born Chinese) kids, families with children from China, new immigrants, and anyone who wants to learn Chinese as a Second Language (CSL) and/or understand Chinese culture and history.”

Moorsetown, Burlington County

Over in Moorsetown, the Perkins Center for the Arts launched its month-long program “Lunar New Year Celebration.”

The same day saw the inclusion of two demonstrations of traditional Chinese culture: “Calligraphic Couplet Demonstration” by Shutian Cao and “Tea Ceremony” hosted by Wharton Executive Education Director and Perkins Center for the Arts Board Member Sharon Hou.

Shutian Cao writing traditional Chinese characters in a form popular during the new year.
Tea pot with cups on display.
Tea is believed to have originated in ancient China, and spread throughout Asia with traveling Buddhist monks.

Hou explained to Front Runner New Jersey how the program began with Chinese neighbors in Moorsetown.

“The idea came about as we realized there are more Chinese residents specifically, but also Asian residents in general, in Moorestown. So way more than when I moved here 26 years ago. I feel the communities are ready to be in more conversations. We actually have a few residents in Moorestown asking things like, ‘How do you celebrate? Why can’t we have lanterns and dragons on a main street?’

“This is when I started reaching out to my Chinese friends in town and told them, ‘There’s this interest. Can we do something?’ Ideas poured in. The residents basically just volunteered their time, their resources and just ideas. We have mainly two major sponsors; that would be Perkins Center here and Moorsetown Library.”

“The forefront of our mission is serving our community and being an arts education institution,” said Executive Director Kahra Buss. “We’re always seeking opportunities to connect with our communities, amplify the voices that are in our communities, and really serve the interests of everyone here through the lens of the arts.

“When Sharon approached us and said that there was a community here in Moorestown that wanted to do a series of Lunar New Year’s events or programs, we were absolutely on board with that and wanted to make sure that we were supporting the community here as much as possible.”

The Center has successfully completed half of its planned events, but the second portion is around the corner for the following dates. All festivities are free to the public. The full schedule is as follows:

In addition, University of Pennsylvania’s lion dance troupe Penn Lions will also perform on Saturday, Feb. 24th, 7 p.m. at St. Thomas Greek Orthodox Church, 615 Mercer St. in Cherry Hill. The 24th falls on the 15th day of the lunar month, the day of the full moon, which indicates the close of the festival.

For more information, check out the flyer below. The event page can be found on Facebook.

“Please pray very hard,” Hou urged Front Runner New Jersey. “Because you guys know the weather better than we do. That’s the full moon and it can’t rain. This is the first year of the Lunar New Year celebration and is probably the first of many.”

The Lunar New Year is a time for reflection and anticipation for the coming year. As new challenges and opportunities approach, we remember how culture provides a sense of dignity and purpose for our respective communities. The deeper the connection we establish with our own cultures, the stronger we will become with every passing year.

This author wishes auspicious blessings to all our readers. May the new year bring you health, wealth, and prosperity! Happy Year of the Dragon!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Daniel Winner has a double major in Religious Studies and Japanese from Penn State University and has traveled internationally to the Far East on several occasions. His insights on Buddhism and Asian culture give a unique view of historical and modern trends. He will be serving as a contributor for Front Runner New Jersey.


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