After massive turnout for its inaugural run, Spokane's Lunar New Year celebration returns even bigger in 2023

click to enlarge After massive turnout for its inaugural run, Spokane's Lunar New Year celebration returns even bigger in 2023
Young Kwak photo
A local celebration of Lunar New Year's start last weekend, on Jan. 22.

When organizers of Spokane's first communitywide Lunar New Year event in almost a century opened the doors last year at Riverfront Park's Pavilion event hall, they anticipated about 5,000 people would wander through.

By the day's end, however, an estimated 12,000 guests had taken in the lively festivities, some waiting for hours in a queue winding through the park. With this in mind, its founders knew they'd need to think even bigger and better for 2023. As a result, the cultural festival takes place this weekend in the Spokane Convention Center.

Based on the lunar calendar, in which months are based on the moon cycle, Lunar New Year is widely celebrated by numerous East Asian cultures including the Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Japanese and Taiwanese peoples, among many others. This year's Lunar New Year fell on Jan. 22, and according to the Chinese zodiac, 2023 is the year of the rabbit; meanwhile the Vietnamese observe it as the year of the cat.

Like last year, this year's attendees will be able to watch live performances and cultural demonstrations, including the lively lion and dragon dances featuring brightly colored performers manipulating heavily embellished and brightly colored costumes (lion) or puppet-like props (dragon).

Guests can sample traditional Asian foods or partake in crafts and activities for all ages, like a petting zoo and a scavenger hunt. They're also treated to a bevy of door prizes and giveaways, including the distribution of 5,000 red envelopes filled with coupons and gift certificates, plus a firework finale at 7 pm. Aside from its focus on Lunar New Year traditions, the event also features an Asian Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander (ANHPI) local business expo.

For event chair Vina Cathcart, organizing a Lunar New Year festival in her hometown is deeply personal. Cathcart is joined in these sentiments by other leaders with Spokane United We Stand, a nonprofit founded in 2020 in response to the hate and racism that arose during the height of the COVID pandemic.

"Growing up in Spokane, the nice thing was that I was fairly sheltered from all of the more racist things that happen in bigger cities. But finally during the pandemic, I remember going into the grocery store and I'm walking down the aisle, and this lady was on the phone and she was like, 'Oh my god an Asian just walked down the same aisle as me — I'm gonna die,'" Cathcart recalls.

"And right then and there, my heart kind of sunk. It was my first racist interaction, where it was just like, right, I'm different," she continues. "So that spurred me to take a real hard look at Spokane, being like well, what is there for Asian Americans here, besides, you know, great schooling? Which is great, but there's nothing that really celebrated being Asian here."

Other leaders in the community saw an opportunity to not only celebrate elements of their unique and shared cultures, but to showcase and educate others about their heritage and diversity.

"Lunar New Year is a huge celebration in Asian countries, and there are huge celebrations across the country" in other cities, Cathcart says. "But Spokane didn't have it, and given that we're the second-largest city in Washington, it's kind of amazing. We thought it was important to bring Spokane together as a uniting front to celebrate one of the biggest Asian American traditions."

In Spokane's early days as a city, the area's numerous Asian residents observed the Lunar New Year. Many of them, from countries like China and Japan, sought a new life in the West, but were exploited for their labor in the unforgiving railroad and mining industries while also facing discrimination from the White population here.

As time went on, however, those celebrations faded away, and the city's historically Asian neighborhood — "Trent Alley," located around where Riverfront Park, the First Interstate Center for the Arts, the Davenport Grand Hotel and nearby parking lots exist today — was razed. Before last year's Lunar New Year event, it had been almost nine decades since the community-scale celebration of the holiday had occurred.

"It's kind of a mixed feeling for me, because I love Spokane," Cathcart says. "There's a reason why I never left in the first place, but at the same time, it's also recognizing that we have this painful past like all other cities that have gone through this."

"Asian American culture was kind of written out of Spokane's past — it was literally paved over for Expo '74," she says. "My goal is always to remind the community that Asian Americans have always had a place in Spokane and that we're still here. So being part of bringing back the Lunar New Year celebration after an 89-year hiatus was a huge undertaking. I was very nervous up until the day, and even halfway through the event" last year.

Cathcart's Vietnamese parents both immigrated to the U.S. from Saigon after the war. They met and married in Spokane. Cathcart has fond memories of going to her grandmother's and aunt's homes for Lunar New Year, eating traditional home-cooked feasts with her extended family and receiving red envelopes filled with cash from all the relatives, a traditional gift of the holiday for children and single adults.

"As a kid, Lunar New Year was always my favorite, favorite holiday, even more so than Christmas," Cathcart says. "It's all of the joy that surrounds it. It's a time for reunions."

Cathcart has begun introducing these cherished traditions to her son, Atlas, who turns 2 this year. For her family's visit to a traditional Vietnamese Buddhist temple on the first day of the Lunar New Year, she bought her son a traditional Vietnamese tunic matching that of her husband, Spokane City Council member Michael Cathcart, and will don her own heavily embroidered gown, worn with a beaded, crown-like headpiece. The family's coordinated outfits are part of the Vietnamese tradition to wear all new clothes for the new year, as it's bad luck to wear something old.

"Part of creating [Spokane United We Stand] was about recruiting the next generation of Asian Americans to be confident in themselves, and not hide away in their own little corners or circles of people because it's safer that way," Cathcart says. "It's great to see the buy-in from the community and how much community engagement there is, and to see that many individuals turn out for an event like that is just incredible." ♦

Spokane's Lunar New Year & ANHPI Business Expo • Sat, Jan. 28 from 1-7 pm • Free • All ages • Spokane Convention Center • 334 W. Spokane Falls Blvd. •

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Chey Scott

Chey Scott is the Inlander's Editor, and has been on staff since 2012. Her past roles at the paper include arts and culture editor, food editor and listings editor. She also currently serves as editor of the Inlander's yearly, glossy magazine, the Annual Manual. Chey (pronounced "Shay") is a lifelong resident...