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Slideshow: Big Chinese New Year Fest In Small Oregon Town

JACKSONVILLE, Ore. – You expect West Coast cities with large Asian populations to colorfully and grandly celebrate the Chinese New Year.  But that is not a given in a southern Oregon county where the U.S. Census recently measured the Asian-American population at barely 1 percent.  Yet on Saturday, polished troupes of lion and dragon dancers romped down the main street of Jacksonville, Oregon during a Chinese New Year’s parade that drew more than 1,000 spectators.

Red paper lanterns decorated the business district from top to bottom. Young children competed to grab red envelopes containing token gifts, a Lunar New Year tradition.

“Every year, this thing gets bigger,” said Debra Lee, president of the Southern Oregon Chinese Cultural Association.  Lee welcomed an audience to see a performance group imported from San Francisco.  Medford-based SOCCA organizes this Chinese New Year Celebration in partnership with the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce.

The small, well preserved Old West town actually had a large Chinese population long ago. Chinese laborers flocked to Jacksonville alongside gold seekers of every other stripe during its gold rush beginnings in the 1850s.  On Saturday, several local historians described how some of the Chinese stayed in the area for subsequent decades to re-sift gold diggings abandoned by less patient white miners.  But the Jackson County town sunk into an economic malaise after being bypassed by the Southern Pacific Railroad.  By the early 20th century, its Chinese population dispersed elsewhere.

The first modern Chinese New Year celebration took place in Jacksonville in 2001.  According to members of the Chinese cultural association board of directors, the revival had civic and commercial roots.  Jacksonville merchants were interested in finding new ways to draw visitors during a slow time of year.  SOCCA was founded in 2005.  Its mission includes improving awareness of Chinese culture and providing activities “that promote understanding and respect.”

Children from area schools embraced the 2013 theme, the Year of the Snake.  Twisting lines of students from the Klamath County School District marched in the Jacksonville parade with several lengthy hand-made serpents.  Some of the district’s schools offer Chinese language electives via distance learning technology.

On the Web:

Chinese New Year 2013: Year of the Snake - Southern Oregon Chinese Cultural Association