Lunar New Year celebration in Seattle's Chinatown-International District. Photo credit: Cham Bunphoath
Happy New Year! Yes, happy 2020 but also happy Lunar New Year! This holiday falls on the day of the first new moon (Jan. 25 this year) and is celebrated in places with lots of Chinese people. That’s mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam… and Seattle.
Local events take place Jan. 25–Feb. 8, 2020; we've got a great list of events for families below, in order of date. Watch for extra details about some of our favorites to help you choose.
For more tips on exploring Seattle's International District, check out our Secrets to the International District From a Chinese Mom.
The first Chinese people arrived in Seattle just about the same time as the city’s founding in the mid-1800s. In the 2010 census count, Asians made up 14 percent of Seattle’s population, including some 30,835 Chinese Americans. Lunar New Year is the biggest event of the year in many Asian countries, bigger than Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter combined. Based on sheer numbers, Seattle offers an impressive pick of Lunar New Year events.
The zodiac animals cycle through every dozen years, and 2020 is the Year of the Rat. They say that people born in the Year of the Rat are inquisitive, clever, self-controlled, thrifty, active and industrious. (You can take that list of personality traits with a grain of salt; it’s about as reliable as your astrological sign.) Rats you might know include George Washington, William Shakespeare, Eminem, Mark Zuckerberg and LeBron James.
Whether you’re Chinese or if you just like food and people, celebrate the Year of the Rat at one of these Seattle-area events. Find the festival that's right for your family and have a happy new year!
When: Saturday, Jan. 25, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.
Where: Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience
Cost: Free outdoor lion dance 10–10:30 a.m.; activities inside the museum require paid admission ($15–$17, kids and students with ID free) or membership
Turn up early to get a good spot from which to enjoy the lion dance, firecrackers and drumming. (Warning: The drums and firecrackers are very loud to scare away bad luck, so bring headphones for little ones or keep your distance if sensitive to loud noises.) Head inside the museum after for rat-themed activities, crafts, a scavenger hunt and more family-friendly fun. All kids are free for this event, and even students ages 18 and older (with student ID) get in free.
When: Saturday, Jan. 25, 11 a.m.–2 p.m.
Where: Mercer Island Community and Event Center
The Mercer Island Chinese Association is partnering with the City of Mercer Island to host this free event, open to the public. Delight in delicious Chinese food while enjoying traditional Chinese dances, music and martial arts performances.
When: Saturday, Jan. 25, noon–3 p.m.
Where: Snoqualmie Valley YMCA
Cost: Free; food and items for purchase
All are invited to get into the spirit with drums, a lion dance, make your own lantern craft and more. Come hungry and discover Asian cuisine with numerous food trucks onsite. Plus, peruse a vendor market where you will find a variety of goods and services.
When: Saturday, Jan. 25, 1–4 p.m.
Where: CWU – Samammish, 120 228th Ave. N.E., Sammamish
Editor's note: Sorry! We just heard this event was cancelled!
5. Tacoma's mysterious Monkeyshines Hunt
When: Around Lunar New Year (Jan. 25 in 2020)
Where: Around Tacoma
Will Monkeyshines happen this year? Tacoma knows how to have fun with guerilla art. If you don't live in Tacoma or haven't heard about Monkeyshines, read up and you might just be tempted to wake up early and get in on the hunt.
When: Saturday, Feb. 1, 11 a.m.–6 p.m.
Where: Bellevue Square (most of the action in the Center Court)
To find one of the best Lunar New Year celebrations in Seattle, look no further than… Bellevue. This fest earns our pick for most comfortable for families with young kids.
With its large Asian population (Bellevue is estimated to be 37 percent Asian), it makes marketing sense for The Bellevue Collection to host a huge Lunar New Year bash. “It’s just a good way to bring customers into the center, and for them to feel we appreciate the things they celebrate,” says Cecily Gray, former digital communications and public relations coordinator at The Bellevue Collection.
Main selling points: There are 10,000 free parking spots. It’s all indoors, so weather is not a factor. The event is extremely well-organized. And dumpling powerhouse Din Tai Fung will offer free samples!
The festivities are held in Bellevue Square’s Center Court, with programming running nonstop. There’s music, dancing, calligraphy, martial arts demos and lion dances. This venue is extra friendly for little kids because no one’s setting off firecrackers (inside the mall, obviously) and the Center Court is so cavernous that the drumming is somewhat diffused.
Tips: There’s no bad seat in the house, because you can get a good view of the show from balconies along the upper two levels. When your kids need a break, head to the free play area on the third floor. Outside J. Crew, tables are set up with an array of craft activities. You can make a firecracker, a lantern, a Chinese “spring” ornament and more. For school-age kids who love arts and crafts, you can easily spend an hour here.
Where to nosh: Din Tai Fung, located conveniently in Lincoln Square, is famous for its pork soup dumplings, and we also love their fish dumplings, shrimp shui mai and for dessert, the red bean dumplings. Don’t bother ordering greens or rice — that’s just wasting space in your stomach. A block north of Bellevue Square is the best Taiwanese food in the region, Facing East. Try the pork burgers, featuring fatty slices of pork belly with crumbled peanut, cilantro and pickled mustard greens. It’s heaven sandwiched in a fluffy white bun.
When: Saturday, Feb. 8, 11 a.m.–4 p.m.
Where: Hing Hay Park and the surrounding neighborhood, Seattle
Choose this fest for the most authentic experience. The streets are packed with families and lots of kids are wearing traditional clothes. Lion dancers prance through the neighborhood, performing at each storefront until the shopkeeper hands over a red envelope stuffed with cash. Pop, pop, pop! Long strings of firecrackers light up, babies wail and the air fills with smoke.
Lunar New Year in Seattle's International District is the place for food and culture (and some nostalgia). The spectacle is the most similar to how we celebrated New Year’s in Taiwan when I was a kid. The funny thing is, in my experience, no one in Taiwan follows these traditions anymore. But for immigrants and their American-born children, Lunar New Year is an opportunity to showcase their cultural heritage.
The day-long festivities feature dragon and lion dances, martial arts performances, a costume parade and Japanese Taiko Drumming.
“We are hoping people will come to the neighborhood to experience culture and food and they will leave having had a positive experience. And hopefully, they will patronize these businesses again,” says Monisha Singh, events and programs manager for the Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area.
Tips and caveats: Because much of the fun is outside, you are at the mercy of the weather; and traffic is tough. If you arrive in the morning, try parking in the Uwajimaya garage (a $20 purchase at Uwajimaya buys you two hours of validated parking). Later in the day, take the bus, streetcar or light rail to the ID. And expect big crowds. You can put your kid on your shoulders, but it can be difficult to see performances.
Where to nosh: Many restaurants feature special menus, usually some variation on dumplings, long noodles, whole fish — all foods considered lucky. For quick bites, try the $3 food walk on Sunday. Check out ParentMap's guide to the ID for more recommendations.
When: Saturday, Feb. 8, 11 a.m.–6 p.m.
Where: Tacoma Dome Exhibition Hall, 2727 E. D St., Tacoma
This annual Lunar New Year celebration organized by the Asia Pacific Cultural Center includes more than 90 booths, plus live entertainment, food and drink, cultural arts, games and crafts. This year’s event highlights the country and culture of Vietnam.
Lunar New Year books for kids
Before taking your kids to an event, try reading some books together to learn about Lunar New Year traditions. Here are some favorites:
1. "Bringing in the New Year" by Grace Lin: Bright colors and simple text highlight the most important traditions around New Year.
2. "This Next New Year" by Janet Wong: A young boy celebrates the Lunar New Year with all his neighbors and friends. The book is cross-culturally inclusive and its message is universal: Everyone has dreams and hopes for a fresh start.
3. "A New Year’s Reunion" by Li-Qiong Yu: The book is set in China, where some parents have to leave their children to work in cities. This story has more words than the other two, and a twinge of sadness that you might have to explain to your child.
Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2016 and updated for 2020.