Shoppers filled the aisles of The Asia Market in Pleasantville on Thursday, grabbing decorations, candy and specialty foods in a last-minute shopping blitz that precedes today’s Lunar New Year celebration.

“It’s always the busiest day of the year,” said Yen Chen, a sales associate at the supermarket.

Red was the dominant color of the decorations, the color symbolizing good fortune.

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Today is the start of the lunar calendar and marks the beginning of the Year of the Horse. South Jersey residents of Asian ancestry are marking it with prayers, feasts and gifts.

The Lunar New Year begins a lunisolar calendar, which follows the patterns of both the moon and sun and typically has 12 months in a year, but occasionally 13. The new year often falls on a date close to the New Year celebrated on the Gregorian calendar.

The celebration has taken on more prominence locally since the population of Atlantic County residents of Chinese or Vietnamese ancestry grew by roughly 50 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The latest American Community Survey reported that Atlantic County has 3,439 people of Chinese ancestry and 3,746 with Filipino roots.

Yen Chen said the new year is celebrated by Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian Asians mainly from Vietnam, China, Korea and the Philippines.

Cumberland and Cape May counties have also seen major increases in the populations in the last decade.

Jian Han Chen, 67, of Atlantic City, and two other family members were recently left unemployed with the closing of Atlantic Club.

But the family still gathered with close friends Thursday evening to mark the new year.

“It’s devastating,” close friend Pat VanWoert, of Mullica Township, said of the family’s situation.

VanWoert, who also lost her job at the Atlantic Club, said she had known the family since they first started working at what was then the Hilton Casino.

On a day when the family should be celebrating good fortunes and warding off evil spirits, they will be collecting their first unemployment check, VanWoert said.

But there was no evidence of the tragedy in the home Thursday afternoon as the children were excited to talk about their culture.

For many local families, the celebrations will begin at home as well as with communitywide celebrations scheduled for the coming days and weeks.

“People spend so much for the new year,” said Cheeta Wu, secretary of the Hoy Sun Ning Young Benevolent Association of Atlantic City. “In China, on New Year’s Day and the next three days, people are celebrating and shopping.”

The celebration centers around family and tradition.

Children receive little red envelopes to keep “lucky money” given to them by parents, grandparents or close family friends as a way of wishing for or blessing the kids with health, luck and intelligence, Wu said.

And the money placed in the envelopes has to be clean and untouched, VanWoert said. “You better believe all the banks here (in Atlantic City) have it on hand.”

Sometimes, adults will give their elderly parents an envelope with money each year, as a way of saying, “Thank you for raising me well and giving me love,” Wu said. “And also return for the years the parents gave them money.”

This lucky money envelope is then kept underneath the pillows on the children’s beds or in their pockets, Wu said.

The festivities began Thursday with a large family dinner — reminiscent of a Thanksgiving spread— that includes a whole animal and nine dishes.

The nine dishes is significant because it symbolizes long life, according to Chen, of Pleasantville.

“Whatever the meat is, is whole, to show a completion or no shortage,” said Wu. “(It includes) everything, even the head and feet.”

Goats, pigs or chickens are all common selections, Wu said. Other dishes also hold special significance. Oysters, for example, symbolize good fortune and good luck, Wu said. Fat choy, a black stringy vegetable, which is simply called “hair” in Chinese, represents “getting rich or lots of money.”

Thanh Nguyen, of Linwood, said her family celebrates with traditional Vietnamese food.

This includes sticky rice, meat and several dishes, with a candle in the center of the dinner table, she said. The family gathers to say a Buddhist prayer before beginning the meal.

Some families light incense sticks in the center of the home, which will ward off evil spirits in all directions, especially entryways, said Jian Han Chen’s granddaughter, Katie Kuang, 17.

“There are so many different things to do” to celebrate the new year, said Alma McMichael, of Somers Point. “You also light firecrackers to make loud noises and ward off evil spirits.”

“They don’t believe in a God but they do all this ‘just in case,’” VanWoert joked Thursday afternoon.

“I’m a registered nurse and I follow all this. It’s just tradition and your culture, it doesn’t hurt (to follow tradition),” McMichael said as she left The Asia Market in Pleasantville on Thursday morning.

Contact Anjalee Khemlani:


@AnjKhem on Twitter

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Been working with the Press for about 27 years.

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