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Kansas City isn't letting COVID dampen its Lunar New Year excitement

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Dana Nguyen
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Courtesy Photo
Dana Nguyen, owner of Avec Moi Sweets, cuts out dough for egg tarts as she prepares for Sunday.

For the second year in a row, Asian Americans across the Kansas City metro will ring in the Lunar New Year during a pandemic. Some events will be in person, others virtual. 

Jackie Nguyen recalls warm memories of celebrating the Lunar New Year as a child with her family in San Diego.

“It was a huge, huge part of my upbringing," Nguyen says. "It's a very, very big holiday that is also culturally part of our upbringing. It’s not just to celebrate the New Year, it's part of our culture.”

Nguyen, who owns Café Cà Phê, a Vietnamese coffee shop in the Crossroads, hopes to share that culture with more of Kansas City this weekend.

Lunar New Year, which is celebrated across east and southeast Asia, officially begins Tuesday, Feb. 1. It’s often celebrated with family gatherings, traditional food and elaborate decorations — but the COVID-19 pandemic forced last year’s festivities to scale way back.

Nguyen, who is Vietnamese American, said she kept the celebration at Café Cà Phê small last year. This Sunday though, she’s eager to share the holiday with Kansas Citians at a bigger, COVID-cautious event.

The event will feature more than 15 Asian-owned businesses, a storytelling session for children, various performances like Vietnamese Dragon Dance troupe, and Asian American guest speakers such as Missouri state Rep. Emily Weber and Kansas state Rep. Rui Xu.

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Travis Young
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Bety Le Shackelford, who works at Café Cà Phê, poses with her daughter, Mia. They are both wearing traditional Vietnamese outfits called áo dài.

Nguyen said everyone is required to wear a mask at all times, vendors have to be fully vaccinated and boosted to participate, and they will ask guests to present their vaccination cards.

While the pandemic presents challenges to hosting events like this, Nguyen said it had some surprising upsides. When COVID forced people indoors or into remote work, many Kansas City residents were able to explore hobbies, which they will display at this weekend's event.

“Some of the vendors are brand new, they'll be popping up for the very first time because they used the pandemic to kind of pivot their careers,” said Nguyen. “So, in good ways and bad ways the pandemic has influenced our event.”

Dana Nguyen is one of these vendors. She owns Avec Moi Sweets, an in-home bakery that makes macarons.

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Dana Nguyen
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Dana Nguyen stands in her kitchen.

“Avec Moi Sweets was actually an accident," Dana said. "I'm a cottage baker, and it started back in the big pandemic where everybody is baking their little hearts out because we're stuck at home. Obviously we couldn't go anywhere, so I'm like, ‘I'm gonna make macarons.’”

To her surprise, Dana said people wanted to buy her macarons, and her business took off from there. On Sunday, however, she’ll forgo macarons in favor of traditional Vietnamese or Lunar New Year foods, like egg tarts, Vietnamese chicken salad and bánh mì sandwiches.

“Everything I'm making is from scratch. So I'm making a house made pâté um, some Vietnamese style char siu pork, which is barbecue pork,” Dana said. “And then, you know, just putting it all together and giving the people what they want. Some culture, some insight of some Vietnamese food and Asian culture.”

While some are returning to in-person gatherings, other events will remain virtual for the second year in a row.

Four women play instruments in front of a greenscreen. They are surrounded by lights and microphones.
Forest Rong
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Junyi Nie, Mi Qian, Yu-Ru and Thu Vo perform the song, Por Una Cabeza in front of cameras at the Kansas City Chinese American Association's make shift studio. The performance will be added to the organization's New Year celebration video.

For more than a decade, the Kansas City Chinese American Association (KCCAA) has hosted a vibrant Lunar New Year celebration. KCCAA chair Forest Rong said it usually features a cultural show, a reception with musical performances, a Chinese speech contest and a large gala.

Pre-pandemic, the gala was held at the Johnson County Community College in the Carlsen Center, and drew around 1,500 attendees. But this year, they’ve compiled everything into a two-hour video, which will stream on KCCAA’s YouTube channel Saturday evening.

To make it happen, KCCAA had to coordinate video production for a multitude of performances months ahead of the holiday. Rong said the team has put in long hours.

“We have a big team working on different programs, working on the different technical side of that, doing several trials, and doing some promotion work as well,” said Rong. “We have been working very hard to get this event to be presented.”

The Lunar New Year presentation will even include some video footage from China.

“The benefit for that is we don't need to pay the people to fly over, you know, from some other states, sometimes from all the way in China to here to do the in-person [performance],” said Rong. “We're able to get, you know, people from almost all over the world to participate without traveling.”

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Forest Rong
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Kansas City Chinese American Association volunteers assemble a large green screen. Forest Rong, chairman of the organization, volunteers have spent countless hours preparing a studio for the 2022 New Year video.

KCCAA is a nonprofit, so events and projects hosted by the organization are funded by donations or sponsorships. Rong said in a normal year, ticket prices don’t even cover the cost of the event, and this year, the virtual event is not even ticketed.

“We're 100% volunteer based,” Rong said. “Nobody takes any single penny as the salary.”

Rong said several viewers expressed appreciation for being able to attend virtually last year, so the KCCAA board is considering streaming the event when it goes back to an in-person setting.

Still, this year’s Lunar New Year celebration will be bittersweet for Rong.

Rong’s mother, Guizhu Xie, lives with him, his wife, and their three sons in Overland Park. Like many Chinese families, they used to travel to and from China somewhat frequently. After months of waiting, Xie was finally able to get a flight to China in July 2021 to visit her family there.

Xie wanted to be back in the states by now, but Rong said because of China’s zero tolerance COVID policy, airlines are shut down and she’s stuck there. Rong said his mother will spend the New Year with his brother in China.

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga is a freelance reporter for KCUR 89.3.
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