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A Mexicali Chinese New Year

COVID may have grounded most international travel, but Chinese New Year is February 13th if you're curious.

Restaurant China Town, Mexicali's Chinatown restaurant go-to.
Restaurant China Town, Mexicali's Chinatown restaurant go-to.

Before washing up in San Diego, I lived as an expatriate “gweilo” (foreign devil) in Hong Kong for 20 years.

In Hong Kong, I had cultivated a taste for exotic South China cuisine like blood cake, goose web and jellyfish. I memorized a sequence of scathing Cantonese obscenities – but except when I backed a losing horse at the Happy Valley racetrack, I never mastered their correct use.

I also learned to appreciate the Chinese holidays: the Spring Festival with its lights and flowers, the Mid-Autumn Festival with its moon cakes and lantern parades. But most of all, I enjoyed Chinese New Year. The exchange of red “lai see” (lucky money) packets, the ubiquitous happiness and prosperity greeting of “Kung Hei Fat Choi,” the magnificent fireworks over the harbor, and, of course, the five-day vacation became important annual rituals for me.

As Chinese New Year approached last winter, I felt a tug of nostalgia for my old home and I began to wonder if there was anywhere nearby that might allow me to indulge my enthusiasm for this wonderful holiday.

China de Mexicali

In that frame of mind, I ran across an entry in my Lonely Planet Guide to Baja California: “Today’s Chinese population in Mexicali is around 2000, originating from Canton. It is the largest Chinese population in Mexico. The “Asociacion China de Mexicali… organizes cultural events, the big one being Chinese New Year.”

“Great. Perfect,” I thought, “two birds with one stone. I can practice my fledging Spanish and ring in the Lunar New Year in traditional style.”

So, I took a tedious bus ride from San Diego via El Centro to dusty Calexico. I walked to the border and pushed through a revolving one-way metal gate into Mexicali.

I was looking for a street sign that would direct me to Avenida Juarez and the Chinese Association. I encountered two problems: First, most of the street signs were missing from their poles. Second, most of the few street markers that remained were bent in such a way as to direct you down the wrong street.

Mexicali's Chinatown – or at least the start of it.

Luckily, Mexicali’s Chinatown, or “La Chinesca,” is close to the border crossing. Through a series of trial-and-error attempts, I began to see a profusion of Chinese language signs and Chinese restaurants and cantinas.

My search was also aided by the guidebook’s report that La Chinesca is a red light district, and once you are in it, even in daytime, you would never mistake it for anything else. Eventually I found Av. Juarez and the offices of the Association.

The Association’s office is only open a few hours a day on weekday mornings. Its exterior wall advertised a Mandarin language course and a few other cultural offerings, but I saw no evidence of preparation for the “big cultural event” of Chinese New Year.

I opened the building’s gold ornamental gate and followed a dim corridor to small offices. A young woman of distant Chinese descent occupied the first office (unfortunately for her). She responded to my “buenas dias” in kind, but when I added “Kung Hei Fat Choi,” she looked puzzled.

My Cantonese accent was always terrible, but surely, I thought, I couldn’t get that simple phrase so wrong. She looked at me like she was watching a burro singing opera. Then with a sudden spark of recognition, like: “Oh! He’s trying to speak Chinese!” she nodded.

My communication problems then began in earnest. I tried to explain in Spanish that I was interested in the Mexicali Fiesta of Chinese New Year. She said, “Que fiesta?” At this point because of vocabulary limitations, I began to pantomime “parade” and “fireworks” and “banquet,” as I reverted to opera-singing burro status in her startled eyes.

Luckily, she was either patient or sympathetic enough to endure me long enough to grasp that I had lived in Hong Kong. Therefore, I much enjoyed the festivities of Chinese New Year and I wanted to witness them in Mexicali.

Then she explained the situation. No, there is no parade. No, there are no fireworks. Yes, there is a banquet, but for some reason, it is held three weeks after Chinese New Year day. The banquet requires a ticket. It is for workers and officials of the Association and some Mexicali authority figures. Then she paused for a few seconds, as if trying to decide how to convey her final point tactfully, but she gave up and cut to the chase: “Pero, esta fiesta no es para usted!”

That sort of candor leaves little retort but a quick “muchas gracias por su tiempo, adios” while backing out the door and onto the streets of La Chinesca. I kept searching in vain for evidence that Chinese New Year was at hand. I saw no lion dancers or red posters of chubby children holding golden fruit.

I had given up when I spotted a sidewalk “tienda” apparently overflowing with red paper Chinese lanterns. Finally, I thought! But when I crossed the street and got closer, I discovered how much Tecate can-shaped piñatas resemble Chinese lanterns in the afternoon Mexican glare.

It was lunchtime. My quest had failed. I followed my guidebook’s suggestion to the China Town Restaurant on Av. Madero. Inside, my holiday spirit was perked a little by a few festive decorations on the walls. I consoled myself with a couple of Tecates and a mound of Chop Suey Especial so grande that even a real burro could not have finished it.

When I finally admitted chop suey defeat, I received a fortune cookie that mistakenly informed me: “Eres un maestro de todos las situaticones.” I paid an elderly Chinese lady at the register. I accepted my change and almost apologetically said, “Kung Hei Fat Choi.” She smiled, folded her hands together in the Chinese greeting and replied, “Kung Hei. Kung Hei. Gracias. Gracias.”

It wasn’t much of a Chinese New Year commemoration, but it would have to do for this misplaced “Master of all Situations.”

I walked back to the frontera and joined a throng of hundreds waiting for permission to re-enter Calexico, and I thought, “Next year, Hong Kong.”

Editor's note: or, due to COVID-19, possibly the year after. Here's to a happy 2021, and international travels to come for all Reader Travel readers!

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Restaurant China Town, Mexicali's Chinatown restaurant go-to.
Restaurant China Town, Mexicali's Chinatown restaurant go-to.

Before washing up in San Diego, I lived as an expatriate “gweilo” (foreign devil) in Hong Kong for 20 years.

In Hong Kong, I had cultivated a taste for exotic South China cuisine like blood cake, goose web and jellyfish. I memorized a sequence of scathing Cantonese obscenities – but except when I backed a losing horse at the Happy Valley racetrack, I never mastered their correct use.

I also learned to appreciate the Chinese holidays: the Spring Festival with its lights and flowers, the Mid-Autumn Festival with its moon cakes and lantern parades. But most of all, I enjoyed Chinese New Year. The exchange of red “lai see” (lucky money) packets, the ubiquitous happiness and prosperity greeting of “Kung Hei Fat Choi,” the magnificent fireworks over the harbor, and, of course, the five-day vacation became important annual rituals for me.

As Chinese New Year approached last winter, I felt a tug of nostalgia for my old home and I began to wonder if there was anywhere nearby that might allow me to indulge my enthusiasm for this wonderful holiday.

China de Mexicali

In that frame of mind, I ran across an entry in my Lonely Planet Guide to Baja California: “Today’s Chinese population in Mexicali is around 2000, originating from Canton. It is the largest Chinese population in Mexico. The “Asociacion China de Mexicali… organizes cultural events, the big one being Chinese New Year.”

“Great. Perfect,” I thought, “two birds with one stone. I can practice my fledging Spanish and ring in the Lunar New Year in traditional style.”

So, I took a tedious bus ride from San Diego via El Centro to dusty Calexico. I walked to the border and pushed through a revolving one-way metal gate into Mexicali.

I was looking for a street sign that would direct me to Avenida Juarez and the Chinese Association. I encountered two problems: First, most of the street signs were missing from their poles. Second, most of the few street markers that remained were bent in such a way as to direct you down the wrong street.

Mexicali's Chinatown – or at least the start of it.

Luckily, Mexicali’s Chinatown, or “La Chinesca,” is close to the border crossing. Through a series of trial-and-error attempts, I began to see a profusion of Chinese language signs and Chinese restaurants and cantinas.

My search was also aided by the guidebook’s report that La Chinesca is a red light district, and once you are in it, even in daytime, you would never mistake it for anything else. Eventually I found Av. Juarez and the offices of the Association.

The Association’s office is only open a few hours a day on weekday mornings. Its exterior wall advertised a Mandarin language course and a few other cultural offerings, but I saw no evidence of preparation for the “big cultural event” of Chinese New Year.

I opened the building’s gold ornamental gate and followed a dim corridor to small offices. A young woman of distant Chinese descent occupied the first office (unfortunately for her). She responded to my “buenas dias” in kind, but when I added “Kung Hei Fat Choi,” she looked puzzled.

My Cantonese accent was always terrible, but surely, I thought, I couldn’t get that simple phrase so wrong. She looked at me like she was watching a burro singing opera. Then with a sudden spark of recognition, like: “Oh! He’s trying to speak Chinese!” she nodded.

My communication problems then began in earnest. I tried to explain in Spanish that I was interested in the Mexicali Fiesta of Chinese New Year. She said, “Que fiesta?” At this point because of vocabulary limitations, I began to pantomime “parade” and “fireworks” and “banquet,” as I reverted to opera-singing burro status in her startled eyes.

Luckily, she was either patient or sympathetic enough to endure me long enough to grasp that I had lived in Hong Kong. Therefore, I much enjoyed the festivities of Chinese New Year and I wanted to witness them in Mexicali.

Then she explained the situation. No, there is no parade. No, there are no fireworks. Yes, there is a banquet, but for some reason, it is held three weeks after Chinese New Year day. The banquet requires a ticket. It is for workers and officials of the Association and some Mexicali authority figures. Then she paused for a few seconds, as if trying to decide how to convey her final point tactfully, but she gave up and cut to the chase: “Pero, esta fiesta no es para usted!”

That sort of candor leaves little retort but a quick “muchas gracias por su tiempo, adios” while backing out the door and onto the streets of La Chinesca. I kept searching in vain for evidence that Chinese New Year was at hand. I saw no lion dancers or red posters of chubby children holding golden fruit.

I had given up when I spotted a sidewalk “tienda” apparently overflowing with red paper Chinese lanterns. Finally, I thought! But when I crossed the street and got closer, I discovered how much Tecate can-shaped piñatas resemble Chinese lanterns in the afternoon Mexican glare.

It was lunchtime. My quest had failed. I followed my guidebook’s suggestion to the China Town Restaurant on Av. Madero. Inside, my holiday spirit was perked a little by a few festive decorations on the walls. I consoled myself with a couple of Tecates and a mound of Chop Suey Especial so grande that even a real burro could not have finished it.

When I finally admitted chop suey defeat, I received a fortune cookie that mistakenly informed me: “Eres un maestro de todos las situaticones.” I paid an elderly Chinese lady at the register. I accepted my change and almost apologetically said, “Kung Hei Fat Choi.” She smiled, folded her hands together in the Chinese greeting and replied, “Kung Hei. Kung Hei. Gracias. Gracias.”

It wasn’t much of a Chinese New Year commemoration, but it would have to do for this misplaced “Master of all Situations.”

I walked back to the frontera and joined a throng of hundreds waiting for permission to re-enter Calexico, and I thought, “Next year, Hong Kong.”

Editor's note: or, due to COVID-19, possibly the year after. Here's to a happy 2021, and international travels to come for all Reader Travel readers!

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