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Celebrating the Lunar New Year, with virtual festivities and traditional foods

Traditional lion heads in UMass Amherst senior Alex Chin’s dorm room, where he spent the Chinese New Year in quarantine.
Traditional lion heads in UMass Amherst senior Alex Chin’s dorm room, where he spent the Chinese New Year in quarantine.PHOTO COURTESY OF ALEX CHIN

Any other year, Alex Chin would be running down the streets of Chinatown and playing the drums as lions danced around him.

Instead, the Newton native is currently in quarantine in his college dorm, where he had prepared to eat an assortment of Chinese food from his university’s dining hall on Lunar New Year’s Eve.

Chin is a senior at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, studying finance and sports management. But he is also a lion dancer and has been performing since he was a freshman at Newton North High School.

Chin has been performing at the Lion parade in Chinatown for years, where he and his peers would spend hours dancing from store to store as they blessed the local businesses. It required hours of preparation, but Chin said it was worth it to connect with people in his community.

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This year, due to the pandemic, the Lion parade has been replaced with a virtual celebration that will feature cultural performances, stories, and Chinese zodiac to welcome the Year of the Ox, according to the website.

Fortunately for Chin, he was able to travel home a week before the New Year to gather with his family for hot pot, a traditional dish that originated from China.

“I’ve never really spent Chinese New Year alone,” Chin said. “Because I’ve always had, well, family and friends.”

Clementine Shou, a sophomore at Boston College studying general management, said she planned to also order hot pot for a small Chinese New Year celebration with her friends at college.

Shou, who is from the Chinese coastal city of Shenzhen, is familiar with celebrating the New Year away from her family. She said food and mahjong — a tile-based game— are her ways of remembering home.

“I low-key really want to go back to China right now,” Shou said. “I’m looking forward to the end of the semester.”

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Bernard’s, a Chinese restaurant in Chestnut Hill, launched a curated menu for Chinese New Year. It features nine dishes – from lobster to braised pork belly – and a unique title for each.

For more than two decades, Allan Lam has been the general manager of the almost 30-year-old eatery. He said the titles for the New Year Specials, which all contain various puns, carry significance.

“A lot of these dishes, they mean something,” Lam said. “We use Chinese culture...and make that into a dish.”

Lam pointed out the dish Shanghai Nian Gao, making a play on the word gao, which means glutinous, sticky rice cake. He said those who eat the dish — called Bu Bu Gao Sheng — will “stick together as a family.”

In previous years, Lam said, the restaurant was close to fully booked for New Year celebrations. However, Lam said with a 40 percent maximum indoor limit due to coronavirus, it “is very tough at this moment.”

Lam said the community has continued to support the restaurant, whether it’s ordering take out or bringing in new customers. He said COVID-19 has pushed restaurants like Bernard’s to adapt in order to continue New Year traditions.

The Chinese Music Ensemble of the Greater Boston Chinese Cultural Association also has been fostering connections during the New Year through virtual gatherings and music productions.

Tai-chun Pan, director of the Ensemble, said while the pandemic has been a roadblock and there have been no rehearsals since March 2020, the group has still been able to find new ways of creating music.

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Under the instruction of a conductor, Pan said, musicians recorded their part of the performance with traditional Chinese instruments at home. The conductor then used each recording to create a song before uploading it online, where members can view the performance.

“In the pandemic, we cannot get together,” Pan said. “But we did have some fun.”

Getting together with friends and family has been a way for the community to embrace Chinese culture, Chin said. He said he thinks it’s especially important now as xenophobia has increased during the pandemic.

“It’s frustrating,” Chin said, “but at the end of the day, what do you really do?”

While COVID-19 has prevented overly-large physical gatherings, culture continues to build the community, Chin said. For example, he said members of the Chinese community congregated at Stearns Park in Newton over summer 2020 to practice Chinese yo-yo as a means to connect in a COVID-safe way while embracing a tradition.

He added that he has been thinking about how he can help outside of the pandemic. Looking into the future, he said he hopes to integrate lion dancing into the extracurriculars in Newton schools.

“Lion dancing is really expensive,” Chin said, “so I can give back to the Newton community by getting funding for equipment for these Chinese schools to spread the culture.”

Gabriela A. Lopez Gomes and Chloe Liu can be reached at newtonreport@globe.com.

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