Philly’s Chinatown rings in the Year of the Rooster

Gong hey fat choy.

It’s the Cantonese expression of wishing someone great happiness and prosperity in the New Year. Master that phrase because you’re going to hear it quite often the next few weeks as the Year of the Rooster begins Jan. 28.

Long after the “ball” has dropped in Times Square and the champagne goes flat, denizens of Chinatown are been busy making preparations for another new year’s celebration that doesn’t fall on Dec. 31.

Based on the Lunar Calendar, Chinese New Year falls on a different date every year, usually around late January to mid-February. Although there is no Chinese tradition similar to singing “Auld Lang Syne,” there are always plenty of fireworks at midnight. Often incorrectly referred to as “dragons,” dancers actually come dressed as lions whose task is to chase away evil spirits as they shimmy around firecrackers.

The costumes don’t come cheap; the average price is upward of $900. Harry Leung, president of the nonprofit Philadelphia Suns, based in Chinatown, has spent close to $50,000 in performance gear alone. Regardless of cost, performing the lion dance during Chinese New Year holds special meaning to Leung.

“Chinatown is our neighborhood, and lion dancing is part of our culture, so we want to be able to take pride in celebrating our community,” he says.

That dedication generates huge crowds in Philly’s Chinatown every year. Restaurants are filled and people gather in droves to watch the performances. Excluding the annual Chinatown Night Market, the first Sunday after Chinese New Year is the largest gathering of tourists and locals at an event.

John Chin, executive director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC), says calls inquiring about the Chinese New Year Parade come from as far as Reading.

“I love the fact that people want to celebrate the different cultures the city has to offer,” he says.

Good food certainly helps. Michael Chow, owner of the Sang Kee empire, is proud to say his loyal patrons come from as far as Baltimore to stake a claim on his famous roast duck. A couple blocks down at Vietnam Restaurant, the covers double during this particular weekend. However, it’s not all dining-in service.

It’s custom for Chinese families to have roast duck, roast pig and chicken as sides for this celebratory meal.

“Chinese people are not only very superstitious but take things very literally,” says Melody Wong, a lifelong Chinatown resident. “We’ll have oranges and tangerines because the Chinese pronunciation ‘gum’ sounds similar to the word gold. Fish, pronounced ‘yoo’ sounds like surplus.”

Of course, there is always room for sweets as well. The tray of togetherness is an eight (a lucky number in Chinese culture) tray assortment of sweetened fruits and vegetables to go with your tea. They include red watermelon seeds, candied lotus root, candied coconut and candied winter melon — which are all said to be symbolic of a great new year.

The superstitions don’t end with food. All of Chinatown’s restaurants may be open during Chinese New Year, but one business that isn’t may surprise you.

It is bad luck to cut or wash your hair on the first of the year, because you wouldn’t want to “wash” or “cut” away all that good fortune. For children, there’s even more incentive to follow tradition: Being good means getting red envelopes filled with money. Families are known to give this “lai see” to their kids as means of bestowing good luck.

Want to take part in the festivities? Head to Chinatown on Friday, Jan. 27 at 11:30 p.m. for a lion dance at midnight to welcome in the New Year, and return Sunday, Jan. 29 for an all-day parade beginning at 11 a.m. Many restaurants in the neighborhood, (including Sang Kee, Yakitori Boy and others) will offer special menus and prizes for its patrons.

The neighborhood’s newest eatery, Chinatown Square, will unveil eight new culinary concepts to accompany its Thai rolled-ice-cream shop and gyro destination Halal Guys.

“Chinese New Year is a celebration of culture. When we celebrate culture, we expand our horizons,” says Leung.

If you go:
Chinese New Year Celebration in Chinatown
Jan. 27 at 11:30 p.m. | Jan. 29 at 11 a.m.
10th and Race streets