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Muted celebrations kick off Lunar New Year in Oakland Chinatown

Year of the Dragon celebrations begin in Oakland Chinatown
Year of the Dragon celebrations begin in Oakland Chinatown 03:41

OAKLAND -- The Lunar New Year kicked off Saturday morning all around the world. In the Bay Area, it is a time for the Chinese -- and a number of Asian cultures -- to celebrate new beginnings and high hopes for the next 12 months.

Oakland's Chinatown business district was surprisingly quiet on the first morning of the Lunar New Year. That is until the roar of firecrackers caught the Llamado family, visiting from the Philippines, off guard as they crossed the sidewalk.

"We came down to see if we could find some dragons dancing," said Lia Llamado. "In the Philippines, the dragons dance at the businesses so this is very empty compared to what we're used to."

Many of the bigger events happen later in the week but there was a long line waiting at Tao Yuen Pastry as people shopped for their first new year meal. As he waited with his grandfather, Jason Arluck said he enjoys the celebration as much as a teenager can.

"I think it's a fun tradition. I understand that most people take it more seriously but I try to have fun and hang out with my family," he said.

The real traditions were happening down the street at Jack London Square, where children's dance troupes entertained the crowd. The Jing Mo Athletic Association demonstrated the ancient Shaolin style of martial arts, wielding long swords and knives. Event emcee Lorraine Yee said some of the members have been carrying on the tradition for 60 years.

"We try to share the story of our culture and we don't want it to be lost so it's even more fulfilling the older we get," she said. "We want it to continue. We want people to still understand what it means, why it's different. In today's culture, there's so much technology. We're still basing ourselves on the beginning, on the real harmony of life."

The group also performed the famous "lion dance." As the legend goes, villagers were being threatened by a deadly monster, so they created their own version of a lion, the only creature brave enough to scare away evil spirits. Twelve-year-old dancer Zoe Liu said she was happy to be part of the annual program.

"If the new year -- if I didn't celebrate it -- it would mean that we never defeated the monster so I wouldn't still be alive," she said. She said holding the yearly event was important to keep the monster from returning. "It's like a celebration!"

It is a celebration thousands of years in the making. This year is special. It's the Year of the Dragon and Lorraine Yee said she believes it's coming at a lucky time, considering all the challenges Oakland may be facing.

"Of all the twelve animals, every animal exists except the dragon," she said. "It is the only mythological character that we have but we really believe that it means the most! It's the strongest, the fiercest, the most aggressive. So, I used to always say, 'winds of change.' So, let's hope there are positive winds of change!"

Most believe Oakland could use a positive change in its fortunes, whether it comes from a mythical character or, like the martial artists, people who are willing to fight to make it happen.

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