What’s luck got to do with it?

While Americans are busy pinching their post-holiday pennies, hoping for good tax returns and generally lying low this time of year, across the globe, the party’s just getting started.

Michi Chin, an international student at A-B Tech, was visiting her family in China recently, during the buildup for her native country’s new-year celebration. Chin’s family and friends loaded up on supplies for the coming festivities — including traditional foods like whole fish and dumplings, which are said to bring good luck on the holiday (much like our own culture’s black-eyed peas and collard greens).

The upcoming Chinese New Year falls on Thursday, Jan. 22, when 2004’s Year of the Monkey (Chinese year 4701) will usher out the Year of the Sheep. (The date for each New Year is the second new moon following the winter solstice.)

Chin says the celebration there is also a time to exchange gifts among family. In particular: gifts of money.

And these presents, she points out, are not random.

“Those who can afford to give money — who are working and making money — have to give to family members or friends who are not as able to work, like a grandmother or younger brother,” Chin explains.

Speaking of ages: Chin is considered in this country to be 23 — though she’s 25 at home, where birthdays are figured differently.

Much like our own Western zodiac is far more complex than daily-newspaper horoscopes suggest, the Chinese zodiac is often only familiar to Americans via disposable or laminated place mats at Chinese restaurants.

But gleaning quickie astrological tidbits about the Chinese zodiac’s corresponding animal signs (snake, rat, dog, etc.) this way can lead to an over-simplified understanding, at best: The 12-year animal cycle of the Chinese zodiac, or “12 earthly branches,” actually works in conjunction with another 10-year cycle called the “10 heavenly stems.” The latter includes the elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water — all of which are, in turn, connected to two more “stems.” (I recently figured out that, being born in 1978, I am not just a horse, but a “yang earth horse.”)

While calculating your true Chinese-zodiac sign is a good way to honor the holiday, easing into the season via Asheville’s Chinese New Year celebration promises more immediate rewards. The YMI Cultural Center hosts the 13th-annual event, including children’s activities and a mini-banquet of traditional food.

An essential highlight is the ceremonial “lion dance,” which features two dancers inside the head and tail of a lion costume, and showcases movements steeped in the martial arts discipline of tai chi. The ritual unfolds to a barrage of fiery drumbeats — and, if available, the thunder of fireworks.

In traditional Chinese New Year celebrations, this raucous din signifies a “scaring off” of evil spirits for the coming year, according to Mark Small, president of the Carolinas Wushu Association, which is sponsoring this year’s event.

The YMI party will feature some of Small’s students providing “wushu” demonstrations, in addition to WNC tai chi masters giving their own presentations. (“Wushu” translates from the Chinese as “martial art.”)

Small, long a practitioner and teacher of tai chi, is also an advocate for its being recognized as an Olympic event. In fact, tai chi will debut as a demonstration sport at this year’s Olympic games in Greece, and then as a recognized one for the 2008 games in China.

Asheville’s own Walter Hackett and Thomas Lussier, scheduled to perform in this year’s lion dance, are both eligible to compete for a place on the U.S. team in 2008.

But that’s years away yet — today, there’s still shopping to be done.

An Australian Broadcasting Corporation online article from Jan. 14 noted that, in Singapore, people have lately been purchasing lucky underwear embroidered with “monkey cartoon characters” and other “traditional red prosperity characters” — all for good luck in 2004.

And why not? It’s only natural.

“Wearing red underwear, especially in the Year of the Monkey,” as one Singapore shop owner pointed out, “will bring you good luck, because some monkeys have red butts.”

The 13th-Annual Chinese New Year Celebration takes place Saturday, Jan. 24 from 4-10 p.m. at YMI Cultural Center (39 S. Market St.). Tickets cost $8/adults, $2/kids under 15. For more information, call 285-2929.

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