Happy New Year!

What's that? New Year's has already passed? Not if you're from China, Japan, Vietnam or a number of other countries that celebrate the new year based on the lunar calendar. And to celebrate the passing of the old year, the Chinese Community Center held its annual Lunar New Year Festival this past Saturday, February 13.

This year's New Year's Day fell on Valentine's Day, February 14. Festivities were held across the city to mark the occasion, but the festival at the Chinese Community Center is always the largest. What initially started out as a cold, gloomy day quickly turned vibrant as the thundering sounds from elaborate lion dances and shrieks of joy from children catching goldfish seemed to lure the sun out from behind the clouds.

Food stalls lined one edge of the festival, steam rising from woks and sizzles popping from baskets of seafood as they were lowered into hot oil. On the other side of the long line of booths were dart games and wheels, spun endlessly throughout the day for trinkets. Inside the Community Center itself, the stage hosted troupes of acrobats, martial artists, opera singers, dancers and even a pastel artist who painted furiously to music. Children redeemed tickets for toys in a makeshift midway and were entertained by a Vietnamese-born craftsman who was creating elaborate yet tiny figurines from putty.

The annual Lunar New Year Festival at the Chinese Community Center is easily one of Houston's best outings. Not only is it free, but its location in Alief -- away from the hustle and bustle and congested streets of downtown -- means that parking is easy and the crowds are more relaxed. We saw families of every race and walk of life at the festival, which important not only to the Chinese, but also to Japanese, Koreans (who celebrate it as Seollal), Vietnamese (who celebrate it as Tết), Mongolians and Tibetans.

While the midway and the giant inflatable cartoon characters roaming around outside occupied the children, an indoor marketplace offering origami and calligraphy demonstrations, jewelry, books and clothing drew the adults. We chatted briefly with auriculist Sarah Fen, who manned a table in a section populated with other herbal medicine and acupuncture booths. Noticing that our photographer, Eric Sauseda, had been rubbing his sore elbow, she called us over.

Fen placed a piece of tape with an "ear pellet" -- what looks like a small ball bearing -- on the front and back of Sauseda's ear at a designated point, which she divined from looking at a chart mapping out the portions of the pinna that correspond to other body parts. Within seconds of pressing on the ear pellets, Sauseda claimed that the pain in his elbow -- which had been bothering him persistently for months -- had gone away. Intrigued, we grabbed her card. "I fix everything!" she smiled. "Sinuses, allergies, joint pain, you name it." Hair Balls intends to test these claims out at a later date, but we walked away impressed for the afternoon.

Working our way through the crowds that accumulated as the sun gently peered out, we saw a painted black face and long-feathered headdress that could only mean one thing walking imperiously towards the stage door: Peijing Opera was in the house. Not wanting to miss the traditional Chinese opera, we headed back inside and found a seat in the packed auditorium. As the players took the stage, we took a moment to appreciate the wealth of culture seeping out of Houston at every turn -- and the fact, of course, that today's slice of culture was free. Happy new year, indeed.

For more images from the day, check out our slideshow or view the short movie below.

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Katharine Shilcutt