It has come time to start the cycle again — the Chinese zodiac cycle, that is. On January 25, the lunar calendar introduced the year 4718 (we Westerners are way behind), and this coincided with the restarting of the zodiac. It is now the year of the rat, the first of the 12 signs of the Chinese calendar. For those who have an interest in astrology, the rat’s characteristics include: charm, wit and adaptability, as well as stubbornness and lack of persistence. In any case, with the new year comes another Tết Festival, at OC Fairgrounds. This year, the Union of Vietnamese Student Associations of Southern California’s three-day festival continued the fine tradition of presenting an affordable way to experience Vietnamese culture in a fairground setting, which the nonprofit organization has been doing for nearly 40 years.
After paying the $6 entry fee (plus $9 for parking), guests passed through an impressive facsimile of a Vietnamese temple gate, located in front of the OC Promenade, signifying their arrival at the UVSA’s annual Tết Festival. Past the gate, as attendees continued through the promenade, they were flanked on either side by a series of large paintings of the various animals of the Chinese zodiac. Most everyone found their corresponding zodiac symbol and took a selfie at this point. At the end of the initial promenade, there was a very large, shrine-like area, which included flowers, decorations and an enormous paper-mache (or similarly constructed) rat. This display was so impressive that a respectable-sized line had formed of people wanting to take pictures in front of it.
Once through the initial building, guests were unleashed onto the fairgrounds. The very basic structure of the event included one of the area’s hangars being dedicated to a main stage, where concerts, ceremonies and other presentations were held. Most of the event took place in the open area of the fairgrounds, which were bordered on either side by a string of mostly Vietnamese food vendors. In between those borders were numerous cultural and artistic installations, several smaller stages for presentations and competitions, and many additional vendors that included culturally appropriate items, non-culturally specific things — ranging from USC School of Pharmacy flu shot offerings to opportunities to support animals’ rights — as well as a whole aisle of games booths from various UVSA chapters.
To get an insider’s view, I wandered over to the event’s info station and asked Thinh Nguyen, one of the marketing directors for this year’s Tet festival, about how this year’s festival is different from previous instances. Nguyen said, “We [made] a lot more decorations this year for people to take pictures with.” He referenced the zodiac paintings. “Those are the decorations that are hand painted by our own team, and then we also have the cultural village.”
The cultural village, which has been a staple of the event for at least the three years that this writer has attended, continues the trend of the entryway veneer and presents a facsimile of iconic structures (such as shrines), marketplace institutions (such as fabric and fruit stands), and various Vietnamese curiosities (these included stations where guests could craft their own “survival bracelets” and New Year wishes and hopes to be hung on a makeshift wall).
“A lot of structures this year are different from the past years,” Nguyen continued. “They are catered more toward [being] very picture-friendly. Another difference this year is our youth night, yesterday [Saturday]; it was more for the youth. Instead of having singers this year, we had a lot of DJs.” Evidently this adaptation helps keep the event accessible to today’s youth. As for the inspiration behind the new artistic efforts, Nguyen said, “Every year we have a different theme going on. And the theme this year is Dawn of a New Era because it’s the start of a new decade, [and] the rat is the first animal of the zodiac.”
Another auspicious distinction of this year’s event was the timing. This was apparently the first year (at least in a long while) that the event’s date has actually coincided with the lunar calendar’s new year. As always, the event was run by students, and Nguyen was particularly proud of that. “This festival is all student-run — it is 100 percent volunteers — so none of our staff get paid to do this festival, and all of us are students from different schools within SoCal. So we have a very united mindset to always support each other. And because of that, our festivalgoers within the community are very supportive toward us, and they have been growing stronger and stronger in the past years.”
Finally, Nguyen attested to the festival’s effects beyond the Vietnamese community. “We have a lot of customers who are not Vietnamese, but they still come in with traditional outfits; they still come in [and] take pictures with our village and then share it across social media, which is a very heartwarming thing to see.”
Before I wandered on to eat some delicious food, witness a colorful wedding procession (courtesy of the event’s resident matchmaker), see a phở eating competition, offer a prayer to a statue of Trần Hưng Đạo, and read ship reports of Vietnamese women and children rescued from drifting boats, Nguyen offered one final note of forward thinking in this new year — that next year will be even better. “This festival will be growing even stronger in the future, especially [since] next year is our 40th year. So we hope to receive even more support from our community [and] our sponsors as well as our attendees … because again, this festival is a 100 percent volunteership, and half the profits of the festival go toward giving back to nonprofit organizations within the community. All of our staff do this from our hearts. So we really appreciate people showing up and supporting us.”