San Jose celebrates lunar new year
San Jose resident Thảo Hạnh Nguyễn sings a Vietnamese song live as audience members dance energetically despite the Friday evening chill. The 2023 Tết Festival will last throughout the weekend. Photo by Loan-Anh Pham.

    San Jose’s Vietnamese community is celebrating Tết, or lunar new year, with an exuberant weekend festival. Leaders said it’s more than a celebration: it serves as a hub for community outreach.

    Dozens of festival-goers braved the bitter cold Friday evening to attend the first day of the festival at History Park. A live keyboardist played as performers sang Vietnamese songs on a stage decorated with bright yellow mai flowers. Festival-goers, some dressed in traditional áo dàis accessorized with heavy jackets, danced in the audience.

    Thảo Hạnh Nguyễn, a San Jose resident of more than 30 years, announced festival-goers who wanted to sing and even performed a couple of numbers herself.

    “Every spring, I have the responsibility of making sure everyone has fun,” Nguyễn, 56, told San José Spotlight in Vietnamese.

    Flowers, from orchids to chrysanthemums, filled stalls of local business owners at the 2023 Tết Festival on Jan. 20, 2023. Photo by Loan-Anh Pham.

    Traditional lion dancing and food from different regions of Vietnam may set the scene, but festival-goers also get a chance to engage with issues impacting the region’s Vietnamese community which include health and political representation. The event runs through Sunday evening.

    Jessica Dang, 29, came to the festival in a violet áo dài she bought back from her first trip to Vietnam as an adult. She said as she gets older, she wants to immerse herself more in Vietnamese traditions. It’s only the beginning of Tết for her: she perused the flower stalls with her friend Friday evening and plans to come back with family members over the weekend.

    “(I’m) trying to see if I can learn more about the culture,” Dang told San José Spotlight.

    Jessica Dang, 29, attended the first few hours of the 2023 Tết Festival with a friend. She hopes to drop by again over the next few days to learn more about her Vietnamese heritage and culture. Photo by Loan-Anh Pham.

    Phillip Nguyễn, festival co-organizer and Vietnamese American Roundtable executive director, said the Tết festival goes beyond the holiday and provides a comfortable space for outreach. The city has the largest population of Vietnamese Americans outside of Vietnam, tallying more than 100,000 residents. Organizations are hosting short activities for festival-goers, while also providing surveys and workshops. Community education, especially on labor and immigration issues, remains critical. Santa Clara County naturalized more than 20,000 new citizens last year, with Vietnam as one of the top countries of origin.

    “It’s a place where folks can really get that immersive experience into these different nooks and crannies of the Vietnamese American community,” Nguyễn told San José Spotlight.

    Natalie Phạm, a health services advocate with Bay Area Community Health, said language remains a barrier in accessing health care. The organization is at the festival to help people find providers who speak Vietnamese and assist those without medical insurance. Last year, the Vietnamese American Service Center opened a Vietnamese-speaking clinic to serve as the community’s “one-stop shop.”

    “People come up to us and tell us, ‘Oh, I have a hard time finding a primary care provider because I don’t know how to explain my health issues,’” Phạm told San José Spotlight. “Health care should be a right and not a privilege.”

    Andrew Lieu, a sophomore at Overfelt High School and one of the co-organizers, said this year is special as the younger generation is part of the festival’s leadership organizing team. While the youth voice is represented, resources remain crucial for older generations, he added.

    “In a way it’s a chance for young people and organizations to take care of their elders,” Lieu told San José Spotlight. “It’s that in-person interaction that helps community organizations become more aware of the needs of the community, and adapt accordingly.”

    Nguyễn said political awareness is also a priority at the festival. Elected officials will have booths or mingle with the crowd. The Vietnamese community has increased its political representation after San Jose Councilmember Bien Doan won the District 7 seat last November. Other officials expected to attend include Congressmembers Anna Eshoo, Ro Khanna and Zoe Lofgren, state Sen. Dave Cortese, Assemblymember Ash Kalra, San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan, Councilmember Pam Foley and Supervisors Cindy Chavez, Otto Lee and Sylvia Arenas.

    “To have them there at the festival with us in community is definitely a big step toward institutional representation of the Vietnamese American community in the political process,” Nguyễn told San José Spotlight.

    The anticipated crowds at this weekend’s Tết festival, as well as other lunar new year festivals, make the event a must-attend for local organizers, Phạm said.

    “Tết is such an important and vastly celebrated holiday in the Vietnamese community,” Phạm told San José Spotlight. “That also gives us a chance to reach those who may need the help or who don’t know how to reach out themselves… (It’s) being there to celebrate not only the culture, but also being there for the community.”

    Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

    San Jose 2023 Lunar New Year Festival

    Location: History Park, 635 Phelan Ave., San Jose, CA 95112

    Festival Days and Hours:

    • Friday, Jan. 20 from 12-8 p.m.
    • Saturday, Jan. 21 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
    • Sunday, Jan. 22 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

    More info at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/san-jose-2023-lunar-new-year-festival-tickets-510407110407

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