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A Durham Moment: Ringing in Lunar New Year with paper lanterns and a giant lion

The drumbeat starts low and slow and builds in tempo. Another drummer joins in, creating an intense beat that fills the room. Onstage, a giant, white lion with a fierce, dragonlike face surveys the audience, batting its eyes and nodding its head. Underneath the costume, the feet of two dancers move quickly and lightly.

It’s all in celebration of Lunar New Year—the holiday marking the beginning of the lunar calendar year, celebrated in cultures across Asia—and people of all ages have come to watch this Lion Dance at The Fruit in downtown Durham. Towards the back of the crowd, a little girl sits on her father’s shoulders for a better view.

To the delight of those in the front, the lion makes its way off the stage and into the throng. Children rush to touch its head as it weaves its way through the room. As it dances out into the hall, the crowd eagerly follows.

In the hallway, colorful pop-up shops dot the walls, where local vendors proudly display their handmade earrings, soaps and mandala coloring pages. Paper lanterns hang from the ceiling, painting the space a vibrant red. One shop sells red envelopes that, according to Chinese tradition, bring their recipients good luck in the new year. At another stall, shoppers choose among paper fortunes to slip into ceramic fortune cookies. Nearby, a table offers raffle tickets benefitting the nonprofit North Carolina Asian Americans Together, whose work includes voter education and internships and fellowships for Asian American youth.

Spanning five hours, the event includes singers, comedians, dancers, a drag queen and a traditional Korean fiddler. Comedian Bobo De Liscious appreciates the diversity of the crowd, something she says she’s not used to in her usual gigs—although she doesn’t love going onstage after singer Kylie Robinson (“This is raw talent! We just come here to be clowns, and we have to follow this?”).

Outside, crowds gather around food trucks boasting authentic Korean, Filipino and Lao cuisine. The lines are long, but Bobo says it’s worth it. “The food is just …” she rolls her head back and slaps her hands together. “I tell my friends, if you don’t come for me, come for the food!”

The event was put together by Triangle Pop-Up, which hosts weekly events that aim to connect artists and support local businesses. Sarah Moody started the business four years ago and has since built relationships with over 3,000 North Carolina vendors.

Triangle Pop-Up’s first Lunar New Year event took place last year at the suggestion of several Asian American vendors. Despite the pandemic, attendees came from as far as an hour away, Moody says.

“It was actually very busy, although we were all masked up,” Moody says. “People were so excited about having this kind of event and this community.”

One of last year’s attendees, Lisa Hyunh, became the main organizer of this year’s Lunar New Year celebration, which has grown to include 25 vendors, plus performers and food trucks. Seeing her efforts come to life a year later is what she calls a “full circle moment.”

Vendors are excited by the large turnout. “I think because, with everyone being cooped up in the pandemic, people are really into markets,” says one vendor selling handmade macrame plant hangers. Nearby, Ritika Shamdasani shows event attendees her South Asian dresses, while Shailee Parikh hands would-be customers her Chinese-zodiac-themed candles to smell.

While other Triangle area Lunar New Year celebrations focus on specific communities, such as Vietnamese or Korean, this event invites people from all Asian communities to participate. It’s one of the largest local celebrations to do so, Bobo says.

“I think a lot of people, they hear Lunar New Year, they associate it with Chinese New Year,” says Bobo, who is Vietnamese. “But there’s so many other cultures and other countries that actually celebrate Lunar New Year as well.”

Moody hopes to make this an annual tradition—and she’s not the only one. “No doubt, next year they’ll need a bigger space, which is a sign that it’s successful,” Bobo says. 

As she speaks, a group of college-age kids arrives at the door, Korean corn dogs in hand. They spot someone they know and are pulled in, laughing as they disappear into the excited hum of the crowd.

Pictured above (from top): Eunae Ji plays the haegeum, a traditional Korean instrument; drummers accompany the Lion Dance; a giant white lion entertains the crowd at the Lunar New Year celebration. Photos by Ana Young — The 9th Street Journal