From Bar Crawls to Banquets

Memphis is ready for Lunar New Year

Photography by Elly Hazelrig

Xīnnián hǎo
“Chúc Mừng Năm Mới”
“Saehae bok mani badeuseyo”
Happy New Year!

For many people, the new year begins on January 1, but for nearly 2 billion East Asians, Southeast Asians, and members of the Asian diaspora, the new year is marked by the first new moon of the lunisolar calendar. Unlike the singular, symbolic ball drop at midnight, Lunar New Year festivals often continue until the first full moon of the lunar calendar, 15 days later. Now that’s a celebration! 

Lunar New Year is a time for celebrating abundance, ensuring prosperity for the year ahead, and family togetherness. While it’s customary to travel to be with family members, no matter the distance across countries or continents, Asian Americans also celebrate in cities across the U.S., including here in Memphis. 

At Good Fortune, co-owners Sarah Cai and Arturo Leighton are preparing for their third annual South Main Lunar New Year Bar Crawl. Extending the Lunar New Year festivities throughout February, this unique, month-long event blends the vibrant flavors of Asia and community spirit. In its first year, the bar crawl was met with curiosity and a bit of culture shock. Arturo recalls, “Nobody knew what the hell it was.” 

People frequently asked, “Didn’t we just celebrate New Year?” referring to the January 1 New Year date on the Gregorian calendar. However, the Gregorian calendar doesn’t keep track of the sun and moon phases, whereas the lunisolar calendar does. This is why the dates of the Lunar New Year vary, though it typically falls between January 20 and February 21. 

Each new year is represented by one of the 12 animals of shengxiao, or Chinese zodiac, and one of the five elements—wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Last year was the year of the Water Rabbit, and the year of the Wood Dragon begins on February 10. 

Lunar New Year is Sarah’s favorite holiday. It was something she celebrated during her childhood with her family in the U.S., but when she was a teenager, she and her immediate family moved to China. “Everything changed when I was living in China and celebrated there because the scale was so much bigger,” she remembers. 

Imagine large-scale parades that seemingly never end and Lion dances and Dragon dances in the streets. There are red decorations everywhere you look—on homes, businesses, and public areas, firecrackers and fireworks—so many that China enacted a ban due to the effect on air quality. Many people give red envelopes filled with money, particularly to children and unmarried family members. 

“People don’t go to work for two weeks. They travel to be with their families,” explains Sarah. In fact, it is the largest annual human migration.

One of the defining celebrations of the Lunar New Year festivities is the “reunion dinner,” considered the most important meal of the year.

This multigenerational family feast features a variety of dishes meant to usher in a prosperous new year. 

The dishes vary by culture but typically include fish (for abundance and good luck), spring rolls (to celebrate the coming of spring), dumplings (because they look like gold ingots), longevity noodles (no cutting or biting when eating them; be sure to slurp to ensure a long and healthy life), and rice cake (symbolizing togetherness). Oranges and tangerines are customarily gifted as signs of luck and wealth. 

Traditionally, the dinner is held at the eldest family member’s home.

“We would typically get together at my grandma’s house and make crazy amounts of dumplings,” Sarah shares.

“It’s a fond memory that I have, and that’s why I love dumplings.”

But when she came back to the U.S., the Lunar New Year wasn’t celebrated as prominently, especially in Florida, where she went to college, and here in Memphis. “I’d get really homesick for China,” Sarah reflects about the time around the Lunar New Year. 

Memphis has been home to a Chinese American community for over 150 years. But it’s just in recent years that cultural holidays like Lunar New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival—along with May’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month—have become more visible. 

This year the Vietnamese American Community of West Tennessee will host a day-long Têt—a Vietnamese Lunar New Year celebration—on February 4 (free event, open to the public). The Chinese Historical Society of Memphis and the Mid-South will host its annual Lunar New Year fundraising banquet (ticketed event, open to the public) on February 25.

These cultural celebrations are important for building a strong and thriving community where everyone feels like they belong. 

Part of what motivated the Lunar New Year Bar Crawl was to “raise awareness of what [Lunar New Year] is and how culturally significant it is,” says Arturo. The heart of the bar crawl lies in the curated signature drinks at each of the participating South Main locations—Good Fortune, Longshot, and Eight & Sand. To introduce more people to the rich, varied flavors of Asia, each cocktail has a Lunar New Year theme, incorporating Asian spirits or other ingredients from Asia.

Participating in the bar crawl is simple: Try a featured cocktail (NA cocktails included) and receive a red envelope with a Year of the Dragon dollar tucked inside. Once you’ve tried two Lunar New Year signature drinks at each participating restaurant, bring your Dragon dollars to Good Fortune for a commemorative T-shirt. If the drinks alone aren’t enticing enough, the t-shirt designs based on the year’s zodiac will be. This year’s shirt features an illustration by local artist Ivy-Jade.

The bar crawl officially kicks off with a bang at Good Fortune on Saturday, February 3, at 2 p.m. Sacred Heart dance troupe will perform a Lion Dance, and guest bartender Tony Nguyen, Hen House bar manager, will be behind the bar. To ensure your good fortune for the year ahead, pair one of the special Lunar New Year cocktails with Good Fortune’s house-made dumplings and noodles. Of course, no meal is complete without dessert. Adding a unique twist to the Lunar New Year celebration, Good Fortune will feature a special taiyaki ice cream flavor with a Filipino-inspired halo-halo theme, a delicious fusion of flavors. 

“It means a lot to be able to celebrate here and share my favorite things with my staff and our guests,” says Sarah. “Who doesn’t love to celebrate?”

Good Fortune Lunar New Year Bar Crawl: Kick-off 
Saturday, February 3
Doors open 2 p.m.
Lion Dance 2:30 p.m.
Good Fortune
361 South Main Street
https://www.goodfortuneco.com

Vietnamese American Community of West Tennessee: Têt
Sunday, February 4
4 to 11 p.m.
Memphis Music Room
5770 Shelby Oaks Drive
https://www.tetinmemphis.com/

Chinese Historical Society of Memphis and the Mid-South: Lunar New Year Banquet
Sunday, February 25
6 p.m.
Dim Sum King
5266 Summer Avenue, Suite 65
https://www.eventbrite.com/e/lunar-new-year-banquet-2024-tickets-785155028827?aff=ebdssbdestsearch

SunAh Marie Laybourn is a food lover, plant person, and avid reader. Ever curious about the world around us and how we can use that knowledge for our collective good, she’s the host of WYXR Memphis’s radio show Let’s Grab Coffee, University of Memphis sociology professor, and organizer of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month Memphis. @sunahmarieonly

Elly Hazelrig, of Haze Photography & Media, is a Memphis-based photographer from Chicago. She aspires to inspire. @haze.photog