by Ashley Duong
The moment I stepped into Universal Studios’ main plaza, I was accosted by an abundance of the color red. Every way I turned my head, I saw it on the walls and littered across the area. The amusement park’s tribute to the Lunar New Year, a celebration recognized in many different forms by various east and southeast Asian countries, had all the token props found in a typical Chinese American household during this time of the year.
Beautiful posters displaying watercolor paintings of each of the twelve zodiac animals and Chinese characters were placed in a circle within the plaza, accompanied by realistic-looking-but-definitely-fake cherry blossom trees. Small clips hung from their branches, intended for people to hang up wishes they’ve written on pieces of red paper provided on nearby tables. Large cardboard Chinese coins hung from the same light poles in which the posters were hung and traditional red lanterns dotted the open floor. Just looking at it both overwhelmed my eyes and put me in a festive mood, reminding me a little of the celebration I was missing out on at home.
But while the plaza was intricately decorated and ready for a storm of people to admire, it remained quiet until the characters Universal Studios has promised came out for pictures. Donned in traditional wear, Po, Curious George, Woody the Woodpecker and Megatron all made appearances. When they came out, people from all corners flocked for selfies and pictures while the characters attempted to strike poses they believed emulated a feeling of the festival and celebration.
However, as the few activities that the park had planned out began, the festive facade began to fall. What Universal Studios had in terms of aesthetics and beauty, they lost in cultural awareness and tact.
There is little to be said when a live seven-foot Megatron from the “Transformer” movies comes out to a plaza that has been suited up as a celebration for the Lunar New Year and begins speaking Mandarin. Following the personality of the character, the man inside the suit yelled, rather rudely, to patrons to hurry up when taking pictures. When one little girl reached out to touch a part of the costume, the man inside the suit said, “wo bu shi ni de wanju!” meaning, “I am not your toy!” The disconnect between Megatron and the Lunar New Year was so jarring that I froze up when I saw him enter the plaza. I left quickly after watching him interact with people in line for photos, most of whom didn’t seem to understand anything that he said.
That feeling of disconnect continued throughout as I watched people excitedly interact with their favorite movie characters. Po, perhaps the most suitable character for the event, attracted the most people with his silliness, but did nothing more for the event.
Disheartened by the role of the characters, I went to check out the “culturally inspired snacks” as advertised by the park. I took several laps around the area and came to the conclusion that there was only one small snack shack dedicated to the event, selling fortune cookies and bottled tea. That revelation left me even more disappointed than before, especially considering that fortune cookies are not original staples of Asian culture.
Upon reflection, I realized that the decorations that I had been in awe of were misleading and remiss as well. The event was advertised as a Lunar New Year event, but failed to recognize that the celebration is not specific only to Chinese culture. Although the name varies from country to country, the Lunar New Year is celebrated throughout Asia, a detail Universal Studios failed to recognize and address.
In the end, the event felt more like a well-meaning but misguided attempt at celebrating a cultural holiday. It was tacky and bordered on seeming like an event made only to promote characters that conveniently and not-so-conveniently fit the essence of the festival.
I appreciated their efforts, but wish I could have seen more activities geared toward teaching visitors why the Lunar New Year is significant to so many people. For me and my family, Chinese Lunar New Year is more than just writing down wishes on red pieces of paper or eating tasty snacks (although that is one of my favorite parts of it). The New Year is the beginning of a new chapter for everyone and an opportunity to celebrate life and those closest to us in it, a time filled with retelling of centuries-old tales and a chance to remember and celebrate our history and culture. If I could have seen more of that translated at Universal Studios, I would be more inclined to say they did their due diligence in their efforts in putting on this event.