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'It's like Christmas:' Peoria's Chinese community celebrates the start of the Year of the Dragon

The annual celebration of Chinese New Year happened this past Saturday at Expo Gardens in Peoria.
Andrea Baumgartel
The annual celebration of Chinese New Year happened this past Saturday at Expo Gardens in Peoria.

Hundreds of people attended the annual celebration honoring the Year of the Dragon and local Chinese culture in Peoria this weekend.

The festival, which was held at the Exposition Gardens Opera House, was a joint collaboration between the Peoria Chinese Association and the Caterpillar Chinese Resource Group, the latter of which has national chapters in Nashville, San Diego, Decatur, and of course, Peoria.

“Chinese New Year is the biggest festival in Chinese culture. It’s a time for Chinese, local Chinese, Chinese-Americans to get together and celebrate and honor the tradition in this festive season. And by welcoming everyone to the show, this also serves as a bridge to connect Chinese Americans to people of different backgrounds in the local community. So we hope everyone can come together and celebrate our festival and enjoy the show together”, said Shan Hu, Chief Director of the festival.

Since its establishment in 1965, The Peoria Chinese Association has celebrated the New Year. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the annual celebration couldn’t occur for three years. Last year’s 2023 show was Association’s first post-pandemic program, which also saw the highest number of attendees in quite some time. This was in large part due to the event being made free to the public, made possible with donations from sponsors.

This year’s sponsors included Caterpillar, CEFCU, Yinlun TDI, and Hong Kong Sushi Buffet.

“Last year we resumed. We broadcasted with a lot of effort to make everybody know we are coming back. And actually that was one of the biggest in history. We had almost 1000 people join us. It was great and we made it free for everybody last year, and we continued that this year” said Xuicheng Zhu, Chair of the Peoria Chinese Association.

A total of 130 performers sang, acted and danced in the two-hour, eighteen-act show. Programs included the popular and well-loved Dragon Dance, other traditional Chinese dances performed in elaborate costumes, a modern dance by Bradley’s K-pop dance group, and songs by the Peoria International Choir, Men’s Choir, opera and pop soloists, and the Meow Meow Kittens Children’s Chorus. The youngest performer was two years old, and the oldest performer eighty-one.

Zhu emphasized the significance of the New Year holiday to Chinese people around the world.

“It’s like Christmas to Western people. It’s one of the biggest events of the year. People work hard all year, and they just want to come back home, stay with their families and celebrate,” he said. “If you can, come and join us and celebrate all together. If you cannot, I want you to have the spirit shared with you.”

Andrea graduated from Richwoods High School in 2015 and from Grinnell College in 2019. She joined the station as a correspondent in 2023.