Sacramento’s Vietnamese community celebrates 2016 Tet – again

The Lunar Year of the Fire Monkey, celebrated throughout East Asia, officially starts Monday, but that didn’t keep Sacramento’s Vietnamese immigrants and their families from getting the party started early.

Monkey and dragon dancers, firecrackers, poker and bingo contests, pop singers, fashion queens – and for the first time, fashion kings – helped several thousand Vietnamese Americans and their friends get in the mood Sunday at Stockton Boulevard and Florin Road in Sacramento’s Little Saigon, where the Greater Sacramento Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce and the Vietnamese Community of Sacramento hosted the Lunar Flower Festival.

Two weeks ago, the Vietnamese American Community of Sacramento held its 11th annual Lunar New Year Festival, also in Little Saigon. The two celebrations show that as Sacramento’s dynamic Vietnamese population, which swelled from 18,170 in 2000 to 32,735 in 2010, continues to grow, so does the number of Tet festivals celebrating Lunar New Year.

Both events feature classic songs, cuisine and the old red-and-yellow flags of pre-Communist South Vietnam along with red envelopes containing lucky money, but organizers say there are differences.

“Ours is more cultural and traditional and theirs a little more business-oriented,” said Tido Huang, president of the January Tet. We appeal to the older generation.”

This weekend’s Lunar Flower Festival’s slogan was “Support The Younger Generation.”

Huang, 42, admits “people can get confused. Maybe we should have done one big one instead of two separate ones.” More than 21,000 came to the January festival, he said.

Flower Festival spokesman Brandon Macklin said 15,000 were expected this weekend, bridging several generations.

“People always clean their houses, go shopping and buy new clothes and flowers the day before Tet officially begins,” said Hy Huynh, part of the Flower Festival organizing committee. “Every New Year, Vietnamese want to start fresh so they always buy fresh flowers to make their home bloom and be more colorful.”

Beyond a sea of flowers, the event included bingo set to Vietnamese poetry and love songs, Vietnamese opera and carnival rides.

Lincoln Law School student Crystal Huynh-Kim was part of a new festival highlight. She said she prepared about 15 young men age 18 to 28 who appeared in western formal wear, traditional Vietnamese Ao Dai gowns and outfits they created Sunday.

“This is our first Mr. Vietnam pageant for young singles, and a lot of the older married men now want a contest for them too,” said Huynh-Kim, 25. “We want to recognize future fathers. In Vietnam, we always have songs about our loving moms.”

One of the pageant judges, Sacramento businesswoman and former beauty contest winner Helen Dang, loved the idea: “This is something new – men’s liberation.”

As part of the featured entertainment, vocalist Conan Phan, aka “Cuong Loto,” used bingo numbers to choose from the more than 500 songs in his repertoire. “I just pick a part of the song that rhymes with the number,” said Phan, 44, who runs the Bodhi Bowl vegetarian restaurant with his wife.

He sang to his audience of “The Great Monkey,” which lived in a cavern and obtained supernatural powers, and he included the traditional Vietnamese New Year’s song: “Say goodbye to the all the obstacles and struggles of last year. ... All together be happy as flowers blossom.”

Phan earned smiles from Ryan Le, Connie Ha and Kevin Le, among the dozen UC Davis students promoting the nonprofit Vietnamese Cancer Awareness, Research & Prevention Society. “He’s improvising and rehashing lyrics of other songs,” said Ryan Le. “He’s worked in the Backstreet Boys’ ’I Want It That Way’ and the ‘Titanic’ theme song, ‘My Heart Will Go On.’ 

Two of the festival organizers, Celeste Brown and Mai Nguyen, beamed in colorful Ao Dais.

Holding her lucky money envelope, Brown said, “We love it when we get this: It means we’ve got luck throughout the whole year.”

Added Nguyen, “Because it’s the year of the Fire Monkey, we are going to have a very lucky, vibrant year.”

Editor’s note: This story was changed at 10 a.m. Monday, Feb. 8, to correct the names of two community organizations that hosted the Lunar Flower Festival.

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @StephenMagagnini

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