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Chinese new year enjoys an early welcome

For the record, Chinese new year doesn't arrive until Feb. 7.

In Modesto, however, the celebration began Sunday at the Senior Citizens Center on Bodem Street, where centuries-old traditions were on display for the return of the Year of the Rat.

The Chinese calendar is based upon cycles of the moon, with the beginning of the year falling between late January and early February.

Chinese timekeeping, meanwhile, is recorded in 12-year cycles. So, the Year of the Rat occurs once every 12 years.

Many other Asian cultures also use this method to mark the passage of time.

"This is our second Chinese new year celebration," said Bruce Lockard, director of Modesto's Maddux Youth Center. "We're building toward the big celebration Feb. 10 at the Centre Plaza."

Lockard said anywhere from 400 to 500 people were expected to drop by the senior center Sunday, and the place was packed at midafternoon. Last year's inaugural program attracted about 300 people.

The Modesto Parks and Recreation Department co-sponsored the event with help from the Modesto Chinese American Culture Club, Stanislaus Chinese Culture Society, Stanislaus Chinese Association and the Fantasia Performing Arts Center of Fremont. Panda Express restaurant donated food for the event.

Music and dance took center stage Sunday, as musicians and artists from the Bay Area performed alongside Modesto and Northern San Joaquin Valley artists.

"Music is the language of the universe," said Richard Hinh, a Modesto architect who was dressed in a traditional Chinese costume Sunday. "Everybody understands music."

Helen Wang, who works in the city's Public Works Department, said the Chinese new year celebration brings the community together."

"We're like a big family," she said. "Everybody comes to celebrate the lunar new year."

The event, she added, helps promote understanding between people of different cultural backgrounds.

Musician Sean Wu traveled from Berkeley to perform Sunday. He brought a traditional Chinese bamboo flute, an instrument that dates back at least 2,000 years.

Wu prepared for his performance by placing thin, transparent strips of a material, fashioned from a marsh plant, over some of the instrument's holes.

Those strips, he said, help give the flute its distinctively bright and sometimes piercing sound.

Red and gold -- colors associated with good luck and prosperity in Chinese culture -- dominated the center's main hall Sunday.

Much of the music was loud.

Percussionists clanged cymbals and pounded hollowed-out drums. Flutes of various shapes and sizes sounded clear and clean tones.

In ancient times, Hinh said, it was believed that the din would ward off evil spirits. Keeping evil at bay was the charge of dragons and lions.

"You see," Hinh said, "we think of lions and dragons as the good guys."

One of the most unusual instruments was the guzheng, a sort of harp and zither cross.

Jennifer Jim, band director at Somerset Middle School in Modesto, played the 21-string instrument that, in ancient China, was used only in the most intimate of gatherings.

Jim plucked the strings with five finger picks, producing a soft, ethereal sound.

It is rare, she said, for anybody to hear the guzheng played today.

From Hinh's perspective, that's just one of the reasons such festivals are needed.

"It's very important," he said, "especially for the kids (of Chinese descent) who grow up here (in the United States) to understand where their roots are, where they come from."

Bee staff writer Mike Mooney can be reached at mmooney@modbee.com or 578-2384.

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