Celebrate Chinese New Year ... on stage

Francis Ma

It’s time to celebrate Chinese New Year … a couple of weeks early.

The Chinese New Year Spectacular show plays Jan. 10-12 at the Opera House, but technically, the actual date of Chinese New Year is Feb. 7, almost a month later.

“That was a scheduling thing,” explains spokeswoman Carrie Hung. “We are doing a show on the New Year, but just not in Boston.”

If anything, it’ll give those who are unfamiliar with the holiday an advanced lesson in China’s 5,000-year-old tradition that, up until this show, was starting to slip from public consciousness, even within the Chinese community.

“In recent years, the essence of the traditional culture was lost,” says Hung. “You don’t get to see a lot of these things nowadays, even back in China.”

The idea for the show was born from the crew at the New Tang Dynasty Television, an international news program that Hung describes as the “Chinese CNN.” Most of the programming is done in Mandarin, the most common language spoken in China, and has the distinction of being the only one in the country that is shown uncensored.

But, in the drive to bring the global concerns of the Chinese community to the world of television, the staff at NTDT felt there was an opportunity to preserve their heritage as well.

So in 2004, armed with colorfully clad dancers and an ancient traditional Chinese score, NTDTV put on the first Spectacular show in five cities.

“Chinese New Year is the biggest holiday for Chinese people,” explains Hung. “With this show, we’re trying to take the lead on it and bridge the gap between the East and the West.”

To help bridge that gap, two hosts are used in the show who speak Mandarin and English to the audience, explaining certain traditions and giving context to the Chinese legends performed on stage.

Since that first run, the show has expanded to 32 cities, and it’s been thrilling both Chinese and non-Chinese audiences worldwide.

For Hung, it’s a chance to relive the feeling she used to get as a child growing up in China.

“When I was younger there were fireworks, you got new clothing and a red envelope under your pillow,” says Hung. “We always looked forward to it. But once I moved (to the United States), the New Year was just another day.”

Which is a shame because those red envelopes that Hung references are filled with money and given to people for a prosperous new year.

Hung says the tradition of celebrating the holiday started to fade after the Cultural Revolution that happened in China in the late ’60s. And because of the communist rule, many of China’s citizens scattered around the globe, some to nearby countries like Taiwan and the Philippines, while others ventured farther into the United States.

“A lot of the dancers in the show grew up overseas,” says choreographer and lead dancer Vina Lee. “And they were all very excited to be a part of the show and learn from it as well. There are some celebrations still out there, but it’s lost some of its content.”

Lee is speaking about the traditional Chinese principles that seem to be pushed aside in favor of a more materialistic holiday coupled with a feast. At its core, the holiday is about family togetherness, showing respect to the elderly, and honoring your parents (is it possible for a holiday to evoke morals?).

The show has been embraced by a wide range of patrons, from the Chinese community recapturing its lost culture to newbies experiencing the holiday for the first time in its rightful glory and spectacle.

Even those in the media catering to a Chinese audience have complimented Lee on the show, including an editor for one big Chinese newspaper saying that they were “doing great things for the Chinese culture and Chinese people.”

“In my experience, as a dancer, you hardly ever see an audience moved to tears during a show,” says Lee. “But that’s what you see because people are touched so much from the show.”