Monkeying around Riverside’s Lunar Fest

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Vincent Ta/HIGHLANDER

Morning

I knew I’d arrived at Riverside’s annual Lunar New Year Festival due to one iconic sight — the huge, red lanterns swaying from palm tree to palm tree. (Indeed, only something you can see in California.) Above the grounds of the festivities, the paper lanterns floated over the heads of attendees, who situated themselves on the street’s curb or easy chairs — or climbed a light pole as one youngster did — to witness the passing parade.

As I eased myself into the camera-ready crowd, I took a moment to glance around the usually quiet Mission Inn Avenue alight with red. As the symbolic color for happiness and good fortune, it’s only fitting that red was decked out around the festival as paper decorations adorning fair booths or as clothing worn by festival goers. Yet, as the parade began, performers donning costumes, uniforms or traditional clothing brightened the avenue with further colors, easily catching the attention of those concerned with the clouded, grey sky.

At the head and the tail end of the parade, long dragons held up by poles wound up and down in an attempt to catch a ball on a stick or the “pearl of wisdom,” representing pursuit of knowledge. It was hard to pay the dragons more mind as dancing lions interacted with the crowd, nuzzling their heads and chomping their teeth toward little children who either gleefully tried to pet them or took a couple of frightful steps back.

Amongst the dragons and lions and occasional Buddha, performers walked down the parade line and stopped to put on their own unique shows. Merely standing watch for a minute allowed anyone to see how diverse Riverside’s Lunar New Year Festival is, with martial artists showcasing their expertise in karate or Shaolin kung fu to Bollywood belly dancers and Polynesian dancers swaying with ease.

Manning a booth with her fellow Sakurabu club members (a Japanese culture and conversation club at UCR), fourth-year anthropology major Luisa Ruiz stressed that seeing this diversity “is inspirational and something I wish to share with other people,” such as her younger brother who she often watches Japanese animation shows, or anime, with. Since we are in a more globalized society, Ruiz explained that UCR students “should be involved more and learn about other people’s cultures, histories and what they do in their lives,” especially with our university being a site of diversity. Here, at the festival, you can “feel the different cultures.”

If there’s anything that festival goers could feel before the afternoon even began, it was the loud firecrackers that caused many to jump out of surprise as they were set off to signal the passing parade. The varied musical instruments could constantly be heard no matter the talk and bustle of the crowd. Up until the moment I left the festivities, drums of all kinds were being hit with sticks, bachi or just the slap of a hand, reverberating off the buildings. Wooden handheld instruments were played and voices of the performers sung out short phrases to accompany the drums. Even away from the sprawl of the parade, an old man wearing a sun hat and a red costume fiddled with a Chinese string instrument that yawned a mellow tune.

After the parade ended and the symbolic doves were set free at the main stage, the next set of festivities officially started with speeches from the organizers and a performance from UCR’s own Senryu Taiko. But, even by ten in the morning, the Lunar New Year Festival had already started and wasn’t going to stop any time soon.

Vincent Ta/HIGHLANDER
Vincent Ta/HIGHLANDER

Afternoon

I briskly followed the upbeat drumming of the taiko, only to find myself joining a rather large audience crowded around the concrete entrance of downtown Riverside’s library. Adorned in bright blue and turquoise happis –– traditional Japanese straight-sleeved coats –– the Yuujou Daiko performers executed exaggerated movements in the thrumming of each drum followed by a series of swift movements originating from their torso.

Upon the end of their cheerful performance, a member of Yuujou Daiko offered viewers the chance to learn taiko drumming. With that, a lengthy line of young children filed behind a row of six drums in absolutely no time, eager to pick up such a unique skill. With two children paired on each drum, every new disciple was given a pair of wooden sticks to mimic the movements of the teacher, who stood before the audience with her own drum piece. The youthful students quickly picked up the actions of the instructor in what seemed like a game of follow the leader. Soon enough, the basics of drumming were instilled in the new learners as they were granted the pride of calling themselves beginner taiko players.

Wandering through the mildly thick crowds down the entire block of Mission Inn Avenue, I stumbled upon rows of white, collapsible lawn chairs lined before the massive, red setup of the main stage. Just as I took a seat near the front, heavily costumed performers dramatically entered the stage. With one entertainer being four years old, members of the USLA Children Beijing Chinese Opera skillfully spun their bamboo sticks and performed acrobatic tricks, even cartwheeling and flipping off of tables. Each cultural dancer exhibited exaggerated face paints, heavy headgear and ornate Chinese robes, remaining true to the roots of this ancient, dramatic art form. A regular attendee of the annual Lunar New Year Festival revealed that this was a favorite act of his, as he explained that it “instilled traditional Chinese cultural practices at such a young age.”

With the variety of scents from savory grilled meats and mouth-watering fried goods overcrowding my thoughts and senses, I decided it was time that I began scavenging to satisfy my now-growling stomach as the main stage prepared for its next performers. Gradually making my way down the row of food vendors on Lemon Street, so as to not accidentally pass anything my stomach would later regret, I slowly observed all of the menu options from each food stand. I looked upon a wide variety of choices with desperate longing, but being the broke college student that I am, I eventually settled on the knowledge that I would have to use my money wisely and narrow it down to only a couple of purchases. Booths of Thai Chinese barbecue, Hawaiian sausages, lobster rolls, bacon-wrapped hot dogs, a tri-tip truck and funnel cakes –– just to list a few –– all tauntingly towered over my already wavering resolve to instead buy and devour everything.

After much contemplation, I ended up with a steaming plate of takoyaki and a hearty bowl of curry. The shavings of dried bonito slowly curled and crumpled as a result of the heat emitted from the spherical balls. My stomach immediately warmed with a single bite into the thick, tender wheat-flour based batter and crunchy bits of octopus. The sweet takoyaki sauce gently brushed over the top of the fried ball wonderfully complemented the savory snack.

Believing I had regretfully wasted money on what appeared to be a measly portion of Japanese curry, my expectations were surprisingly surpassed as soon as I forked down a mouthful. The sweet, thick curry sauce over a fresh serving of steamed white rice further warmed me up. I eagerly tested a bite from the two skewers of fried squid legs and two pieces of shrimp tempura that accompanied the dish. Being that this was my first time trying fried squid legs, my expectation for all other squid legs is now at an ultimate high. The delicate pieces of squid entirely coated in soft batter easily detached from the skewer with a gentle bite as it simply melted in my mouth. The long pieces of shrimp tempura were equally satisfying as the items managed to balance their crunchiness with suppleness.

As I thoroughly enjoyed my meal, I returned to the library entrance to join the viewers of the Sakura Japanese Dance, where a small ensemble of dancers dressed in kimonos shook their tambourines and stepped to the fast-paced beat of wind pipes and drums. Seeing a diverse group of performers carry out this cultural dance brought light to many Lunar Festival attendees. Second-year biochemistry Macy Phan expressed how rewarding it was to “see Riverside celebrating and taking part in other cultural and diverse Asian practices.”

Evening

The sky was getting darker, but the excitement was still present in the attendees of the event. Hopping off the bus and onto the streets of downtown Riverside, I was immediately greeted with a flurry of booths — having everything from a malaria awareness booth to craft booths to Polynesian dancing lessons. One of the booths was a small shop called Sunny Seki, selling items like handmade jewelry to home decor. As I started a conversation with the shopkeeper, she explained to me the importance of preserving her own culture and making it available for others to enjoy as well.

Even if you aren’t interested in the parade or performances, there were activities to get the entire family involved. The event featured a petting zoo, with donkeys, pigs and sheep for children to play with, as well as crafts ranging from temporary tattoos, coloring pages and writing Chinese characters. One festival attendee noted that her favorite part of the festival was “just being out here with family and the different cultures that we get to enjoy.” A native to the Riverside area, she enjoys coming out every year with her loved ones to bring in the new year.

Of course, no festival is complete without food. Running on an empty stomach, I immediately perked up at the smell of teriyaki, rice and other satisfying smells in the air. As I ordered my beef teriyaki on a stick, I was surprised to see how big the portions were and how delicious everything tasted. While I tried to order my favorite drink, Thai iced tea with boba, I was sad to see that all the booths ran out of boba since it was a crowd favorite. Not only was there Asian food, but stands offered Philly cheesesteaks, nachos, tacos, hot dogs and lobster rolls to meet your biggest cravings.

I have to admit that I felt a bit underdressed in my sunflower-printed romper and cardigan. All around the festival were participants dressed in cosplay based on their favorite anime or cartoon characters. Link (from Legend of Zelda) and Alice in Wonderland were two of the many characters to make an appearance.

All throughout the day, I noticed that everyone seemed to be anticipating the evening performances, and was determined to check them out for myself. Needless to say, I was not disappointed. Complete with performances featuring dragon dancers, acrobatic dancers and drummers, the performances left me and several other attendees with our chin to the floor in awe of the incredible talent that Riverside County possesses. However, this was all preparation for the biggest part of the night: the fireworks show.

The show left participants wide-eyed and breathless. Wishing everyone a year of prosperity, the firework display looked picture-perfect. As children climbed on the backs of their parents to see every firework pop and crackle into the sky, it was clear how an event honoring the culture of Asian countries can unify a community. The fireworks, believed to be able to ward off evil spirits, were the perfect way to end a day so celebrative. As bursts of red, white and purple fireworks shot into the sky, it was a time to remember the incredible events from the previous year while marching bravely into the limitless potential that the next 366 (it’s a leap year this year!) days hold.

Cameron Yong/HIGHLANDER
Cameron Yong/HIGHLANDER
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