Chinatown: Lunar New Year Celebrations Continue Amid Pandemic

The Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation held virtual events for Chinese New Year amid COVID-19.

Wangbo Zhu performs in Dilworth Park on Feb.12, 2021.

There might be less people in the streets this year in Philadelphia’s Chinatown, but the community still found ways to celebrate the Lunar New Year in February amid the pandemic and the anti-Asian discrimination that has followed.

The Lunar New Year is the biggest celebration among some Asian communities. It marks the beginning of a new calendar year that is based on moon cycles and amounts to a large celebration with festivals, dancing, and tradition. The event lasts for 15 days and brings many visitors to Philadelphia’s Chinatown.

Chinatown has faced a surge of anti-Asian sentiment and economic hardship amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Small businesses have suffered the most from citywide shutdowns and dwindling patronage.

One of the biggest attractions of the Lunar New Year Celebrations is the Lion Dancing. This colorful display accompanied by lively music draws a lot of attention and community engagement as it takes teams of people to perform this traditional dance.

The Philadelphia Suns, a nonprofit organization that uses Lion Dancing as a means to fundraise for its community programs, has been the leading performance group for festivals past. In the past year they have done over 70 live performances, but since the onset of COVID-19 has shut down its programming completely.

“The performances are very festive,” said Harry Leong, president of the organization. “It’s a fun thing for our community to do and we always had a big turnout. This year, that festivity just isn’t there.”

All lion dancing performances were canceled this year to prevent the gathering of crowds and the spread of COVID.

“This has greatly affected the morale of our members as well as the local Chinese community,” Leong said. “Our activities have played a huge part in the lives of our community.”

While most events were canceled, there was a performance by the Kun-Yang Lin Dancers and festive decorations at Dilworth Park for onlookers to enjoy.

Lingyuan Zhao performing at Dilworth Park on Feb. 12, 2021.

The Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation organized some online events including a special performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra and an online celebration that took place on Feb. 26.

The Lunar New Year coincides with rising anti-Asian hate crimes. Since March 2020, there have been over 3,000 hate crimes reported nationwide and number keep climbing.

“Even in the beginning of 2020, before it was officially announced that COVID-19 hit the U.S., we were seeing Chinatown small businesses hurting and feeling the brunt of the anti-Asian sentiment and the xenophobic and racist beliefs around COVID-19,” Devon Stahl, a PCDC communications and development associate, said. “When the city really shut down, Chinatown businesses started hurting even more. There is a sense of fear.”

The PCDC started to produce the “Ai Love Chinatown Live Video Series,” to combat the rising intolerance. The series showcases local shops and restaurants while also teaching about the different things you can find in the Philadelphia Chinatown.

“I don’t think that feeling of uneasiness and vulnerability has really gone away,” Stahl said. “Our community is still feeling very much vulnerable.”

The PCDC also runs a campaign where people can report instances of discrimination due to racist stereotyping about COVID.

“Once COVID-19 hit and Trump started using terms such as ‘Chinese Virus,’ I was terrified,” Amy Cao, a nursing student from Drexel University, said. “I removed all charms from my car that would indicate I was Chinese. I’ve had dirty stares and remarks targeted towards me because I am Chinese.”

Text and photos by Victoria Langowska.

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Editor’s note: Our special reporting on COVID-19 may focus on communities outside Philadelphia because many of our student journalists are now temporarily located outside of the city. Instead, our reporters will cover how the coronavirus is impacting their own communities from across the country and around the world. We will return to hyperlocal coverage of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods as soon as possible.

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