At the altar, where a trail of incense smoke snaked lazily upward, a Buddhist monk in a saffron-colored robe knelt to chant prayers.
After a moment of silence, he faced the crowd.
“We hope for good fortune for everybody,” the Rev. Minh Tuyen said. “We must remember to share our happiness, especially in the change from the old to the new.”
A slice of Spokane’s fast-growing Vietnamese community, which now claims a population of 3,000, gathered Sunday to ring in New Year’s Eve.
About 300 men, women and children filled the Buddhist temple on North Regal to mark the occasion.
Tuyen, a visiting monk from Portland, told the crowd it was especially important for recent arrivals to have new hopes and wishes as they start their lives in America.
For the event, worshipers wore their best. Women dressed in black velvet ao dais (traditional long blouse and pants) and children in new clothes.
Fruit was stacked high on plates near the altar: mangoes, papayas, pineapples, oranges. It was an offering to ancestors - an invitation for the spirits of the dead to come and feast.
At the sound of drumbeats, all heads bowed.
Afterward, Suong Nguyen, who came to America four years ago, said observing New Year’s traditions is important for the younger generation.
“We don’t want the children to forget our customs,” Nguyen said as she tied red envelopes to a silk flower tree. Stuffed inside the envelopes was good-luck money for the guests to take home. “If we remember the custom, that ties us together.”
Pauline Pham, like many others in the community, is concerned Vietnamese children are assimilating too quickly.
Events like this, Pham said, are a reminder of how their ancestors lived.
“Even though you live here in America, you need to realize who you are,” she said.
Thach Chau, vice president of the Vietnamese Buddhist Community, Spokane’s only Vietnamese civic organization, says New Year’s is a time to remember past mistakes and rectify them in the coming year.
“We need to remember what we did in the past to improve ourselves,” Chau said.
On Ha, one of about 30 women packed inside a kitchen in the temple basement, said the celebration is more than just wishing one another good luck.
“We celebrate the people,” Ha said, gripping two jumbo-sized chopsticks to lift egg rolls out of a pot.
Ha, an American resident for five years, likes crowds. She bubbled over with excitement as the women kept bumping into one another in the bustling kitchen.
Brigitte Lam was in charge of making the desserts for the event - ginger candy and deep-fried pastries.
Lam, who came to America 20 years ago, remembers the carnivallike atmosphere in her homeland every New Year’s - with firecrackers, dancing and singing.
Oahn Nguyen said the celebration in Spokane makes Vietnamese elders feel at home.
“It’s festive,” Nguyen said. “It’s something familiar.”
The event was marked Sunday by an afternoon of singing, dancing, and slapstick-comedy skits from members of the temple’s youth group. At midnight, people gathered again for a final prayer service.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: HOUSECLEANING CALLED BAD LUCK For three days following the Vietnamese new year, the kitchen gods are watching. Starting today, Vietnamese people don’t clean their homes. They hide brooms and mops. No one dares vacuum. “You just whip out every luck - all the happiness and prosperity - out of the house if you clean,” said Pauline Pham, 27. “So you have to prepare. You have to clean and shop and cook before this day.” On New Year’s Eve, Vietnamese also set up altars with burning incense to invite ancestors to join in the celebration. Yellow-petaled mai flowers are brought into the home or temple to symbolize peace. “Mai” means “happiness” in Vietnamese. Firecrackers often are set off for the finale. In Vietnamese folklore, the explosions scare devils away so people can have a good year, Pham said. New Year’s is especially fun for kids, who get good-luck money from elders - and new clothes from parents. “In Vietnam, only once a year people indulge in fruit and free time and wear new clothes,” said Toi Mulligan, who organized Sunday’s celebration at the Vietnamese Buddhist Temple on North Regal. “That’s why the kids like it so much.” Red envelopes, symbolizing prosperity, are tied to the mai tree with money inside, usually a few coins or a dollar. The gesture is a wish from parents to their children for a prosperous year, Mulligan said. Chinese also celebrate New Year’s today. - By Putsata Reang Staff writer