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A window into China: Why a South Florida museum celebrates Lunar New Year

Chinese dragon dance (longwu (龙舞) for Lunar New Year at the Norton Museum of Art
Yojahechi Urias
Chinese dragon dance (longwu (龙舞) for Lunar New Year at the Norton Museum of Art

While most western cultures follow the Gregorian calendar to ring in the new year on Jan. 1, many Asian cultures celebrate the Lunar New Year — and its date changes each year, based on the lunisolar Chinese calendar.

Through ancient and contemporary art, the Norton Museum of Art is using the celebration to immerse Palm Beach County patrons in this staple of Chinese culture.  

Lunar New Year typically lasts several days — or even weeks — because the holiday is observed between the first new moon of the year and the first full moon.

This year, it’s from Feb.10 to 24. And it marks the start of the Year of the Dragon, according to the Chinese Zodiac, a 12-year cycle that attaches each year to an animal sign.

The museum's Lunar New Year Community Day, in it's 10th edition, is giving people a window into a Chinese culture that’s far less visible across South Florida, offering rare glimpses of 16th century paintings as well as activities like puppet shows and dragon-and-lion dances.

"In South Florida, it isn't a prevalent culture," said Quincy Bruckerhoff, the museum’s adult program manager.

"We don't have a huge Asian culture like in San Francisco or Philadelphia where they have Chinatown and it’s just a part of life,” Bruckerhoff told WLRN. “So I think it’s especially exciting for us because you don’t get to see this in South Florida very often.”

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Chinese cultural events are few and far between in South Florida — there is a low percentage of residents who identify as Chinese. People of East Asian background make up just over 3% of the overall population in Palm Beach County, according to latest Census data.

The museum estimates approximately 1,800 people attend the community day each year from across South Florida, exploring China's art spanning over five millennia.

This year, “Hao Bang Ah!” a traditional shadow puppet show by the Chinese Theater Works, features the twelve animals of the Chinese Zodiac through puppet skits, dances, and traditional songs.

For Norton Museum's Lunar New Year Community Day, Quincy Bruckerhoff is inviting Claire Chu — a scholar in field of Chinese snuff bottles— for a lecture on the history surrounding the bottles, which were used for tobacco during the Qing dynasty in the 1600s.

"And we always have lots of art projects, which are great for the kids, like lantern making, food, calligraphy," Bruckerhoff said.

Laurie Barnes, Senior Curator of Chinese Art, said Ralph Norton, the founder of the museum, “had a desire to build a public collection that introduced works from a non-Western culture that in his words 'are among the world’s greatest works of art.’"

The museum has over 700 Chinese objects and three galleries that are dedicated to Chinese art.

Barnes, who considers herself “an ambassador for the Chinese collection” at the museum, told WLRN she believes “the 21st century is going to be the Chinese century and there is much to learn and appreciate about the art and culture of China."

Pendant (Pei) in the Form of a Dragon, circa 475–400 BCE Eastern Zhou Dynasty, early Warring States Period Nephrite jade, probably carved in Nanyang, Henan. Gift of R.H. Norton, 50.27
Bruce M. White for Norton Museum of Art
Pendant (Pei) in the Form of a Dragon, circa 475–400 BCE Eastern Zhou Dynasty, early Warring States Period Nephrite jade, probably carved in Nanyang, Henan. Gift of R.H. Norton, 50.27

Lunar celebrations across cultures

People from across east and south Asia — the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, to name a few — observe the public holiday with their own traditions and customs, from family reunions and traditional feasts to playing traditional games and gambling.

For the Vietnamese, for example, Lunar New Year is known as Tết. Vietnamese visit family graves and eat traditional foods like Bánh chưng and Bánh tét, sticky rice cakes.

Korean Lunar New Year is known as Seollal — Koreans wear traditional clothes called Hanbok (한복) and perform Sebae (새배), a deep bow to their elders.

The Japanese adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1873 but some Lunar celebrations still exist, like the Chinese Spring Festival in Yokohama, Japan.

Among many festivities, the Chinese typically wear red traditional attire and adorn their homes with red paper lanterns — and red envelopes filled with cash, known as hóngbāo, are passed among family and friends. The color symbolizes good fortune and prosperity.


Norton Museum of Art
Date: February 10th
Time: 12 to 7 p.m
Location: 1450 S Dixie Hwy, West Palm Beach, FL 33401

Wilkine Brutus is the Palm Beach County Reporter for WLRN. The award-winning journalist produces stories on topics surrounding local news, culture, art, politics and current affairs. Contact Wilkine at wbrutus@wlrnnews.org
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