Raymond Chin feeds a red envelope to a lion

From Chinatown to Bloomingdale’s: Chicago celebrates Chinese New Year

By Kate Morrissey

Despite the snow that rattled rush-hour drivers Wednesday evening, the Phoenix Restaurant hosted a who’s who of Chinatown’s business and political leaders for one of the many celebrations of Chinese New Year happening across Chicago.

Chinese New Year, more accurately referred to as Lunar New Year, began Thursday, and, according to Raymond Chin, the chairman of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce and Wednesday’s host, the parties can last up to a month. In Chicago the celebrations have spread beyond Chinatown’s borders and include a diverse community, which Chin said has contributed to Chinatown’s growth.

The Shannon Rovers march in the Chinese New Year parade in Chinatown.
According to Gene Lee, the founder of the Chicago Chinatown Special Events organization, including groups like the Shannon Rovers in the annual parade gives a nod to Chinatown’s Irish neighbors to the south in Bridgeport. (Kate Morrissey/Medill)

“China is becoming a world power in international commerce, and the business community followed suit,” Chin said. “Other communities jump in to celebrate. It’s another holiday. Who invented Christmas, but everybody celebrates it right?”

Even the Magnificent Mile got in on the action. Bloomingdale’s hosted its third annual Chinese New Year celebration over the weekend by decorating the store in traditional red and gold, giving out red envelopes to shoppers and partnering with the Chinese Fine Arts Society for performances throughout the weekend.

A model takes a photo of shoppers at Bloomingdale's
A model takes a photo of shoppers posing in front of the gong at Bloomingdale’s Chinese New Year celebration. (Kate Morrissey/Medill)

“During this time you’re supposed to buy new clothes and get rid of what’s old,” said Lesley Chen McCool, the managing director for the Chinese Fine Arts Society, adding that Bloomingdale’s had done its homework in terms of authenticity. “It’s actually really appropriate for us to be involved at a mall.”

The dancers said that performing at a department store didn’t feel much different from performing in other places.

“It doesn’t matter where I play; I’m just playing lion,” said Hong Lee, one of the lion dancers who performed Saturday.

Lion dancers perform around Bloomingdale’s.
Lion dancers from the Chicago Chinese Cultural Center perform around Bloomingdale’s. (Kate Morrissey/Medill)

Bloomingdale’s general manager, Carolyn Edward, said that the company wanted to recognize the number of Chinese and Chinese Americans who shop there. She said the company has even made a specific effort to hire Mandarin-speaking staff.

Gene Lee, the founder of the Chicago Chinatown Special Events organization that puts on the annual Chinatown parade, said he was flattered by Bloomingdale’s interest in Chinese culture and Chinese patrons. He said that it wasn’t the only department store interested in celebrating his culture; Macy’s has sponsored his group’s parade for about a decade.

Two dragons march at the Chinese New Year parade in Chinatown
Lee said that the dragon performers traveled from Indiana to be a part of the Chinatown parade. (Kate Morrissey/Medill)

According to Lee, the citywide celebrations, department store or otherwise, help business in Chinatown as well as the entire Chicago area.

“They’re taking it to another level, helping us to promote the Lunar New Year and our culture,” Lee said. “I think it’s important not only for Chinatown but also to the city of Chicago with residual benefits to the state of Illinois that we continue to draw visitors through tourism.”

The celebration is scheduled to continue Sunday with the Chinese Fine Arts Society’s lantern festival at Navy Pier.

Photo at top: As part of Lunar New Year tradition, Raymond Chin, chairman of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, feeds a red envelope to a lion at the Phoenix restaurant celebration. (Kate Morrissey/Medill)