Xiayi “Shirley” Zhang lives four minutes from the heart of Central Plaza in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. Over a plate of pad see ew and a coconut at Via Café, a Vietnamese restaurant tucked into the historic plaza, she explained that she moved to Chinatown in 2007 after leaving USC because her Chinese heritage is important to her.
Since that time, Zhang joined the Chinatown Business Improvement District, a group working to let others see how what Zhang already knows: that Chinatown today is not only culturally relevant, but also hip and vivacious.
And to do just that, the group has some special features planned for this year’s Chinese New Year Festival, which celebrates the Year of the Snake.
The biggest party of the year in Chinatown will begin on Saturday, Feb. 16 and run throughout the weekend. The festival has something to stimulate all of the senses, starting with touch: Chinatown will attempt to break the previous world record for the largest modular origami piece, which was made using nearly 60,000 units. Zhang said the committee came up with the idea as a way to make the weekend memorable and also to unify participants. Everyone at the festival is encouraged to participate: There will be paper and instructions to go along with the setup so that people of all ages can join the festivities and help out.
Attendees will make the modular origami into the shape of a snake to honor this year, the year of the snake. The goal is to use 80,000 units because eight is a lucky number in Chinese culture.
“What better way to start the New Year than with a new world record?” Zhang said.
The festival has also planned many visual elements to excite the eyes, including the 114th annual Golden Dragon Parade, which will feature Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck as grand marshals and the new Miss Chinatown with her court on the floats.
After the parade, there will be cultural performances at Central Plaza, including some of the best acrobats and contortionists in America in addition to juggling and ribbon dancing.
It won’t be hard to hear the auditory element, as LA Weekly will sponsor a live music stage that will feature various indie bands and a singing competition.
As for tastes and smells, all the self-proclaimed foodies can grab a bite from food trucks such as Kogi Korean BBQ, deemed “the godfather of food trucks,” Zhang said. Seoul Sausage, which won the Great Food Truck Race, will also be present to serve fusion Asian cuisine. There will also be a craft beer garden that will feature only local breweries such as Eagle Rock Brewery, Angel City and Monkfish Brewing Co.
With all these events, Zhang hopes to increase public awareness of the amenities that Chinatown has to offer so that Chinatown can reach its full potential and thus feel more alive.
“It’s something that I live and breathe everyday,” Zhang said. “There’s a lot of unutilized space in Chinatown that I would love to see developed. I would like to see Chinatown open later at night, and see more vitality in the community.”
Zhang is not the only one excited about revitalizing Chinatown. Many residents of Chinatown feel the same way. Osceola Refetoff, a Montreal native, has been living in his studio apartment right in the heart of Chinatown for about a little over year. Refetoff said he regrets that more young residents don’t move to Chinatown.
“[It has a] vivacious spirit and unique architectural charm,” Refetoff said. “[It’s a] unique opportunity to live on a walking street so close to downtown, yet [it’s] so quiet with a small-town feel.”
There’s a lot to offer in this small corner of Downtown Los Angeles, from its culture, historical significance and amenities. This year’s Chinese New Year Festival could prove to be the perfect leap that Chinatown needs to really showcase the vitality it offers Los Angeles.
“Chinatown’s an experience, and it’s meant to be shared,” Zhang said.