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In late January, Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans across the country will say goodbye to the year of the rooster and usher in the year of the dog. If you were born in the year of the dog, you're in the company of Elvis Presley, Madonna, Andre Agassi, Bill Clinton and Ralph Nader. The Lunar New Year dates back to 2600 B.C., when Emperor Huang Ti introduced the first cycle of the Chinese zodiac; if you're born in the year of the dog, for example, you're believed to share characteristics of the dog -- loyal, stubborn, loving and a little bit eccentric. The first day of the new year generally falls anywhere between late January and early February. This year marks Lunar year 4704 and begins on January 29. The dog is associated with good fortune; there's a Chinese proverb that says if a strange dog follows you home your house with be blessed with prosperity.

What's happening in Chinatowns in North America to celebrate this? Well, that depends on how one defines "Chinatown." Right now, there are "new" Chinatowns popping up in areas surrounding older, traditional historic downtown Chinatowns as people move to suburbs or nearby cities (Oakland, CA is a good example) and immigration patterns change. For the sake of our discussion, we're looking at old, historic, downtown Chinatowns, as these are where such festivities traditionally take place.

"Historic Chinatowns in North America generally are still the social and economic centers of Chinese immigrant life, but their prominence and importance are transitioning. The shift is due to new patterns of Asian immigration and settlement in new urban and suburban communities," says Gene Moy, president of Chicago Chinese American Historical Society.

Thus, searching for hard and fast statistics on Chinese populations in major cities to determine the largest proves difficult. San Francisco and New York City both have three Chinatowns apiece if you count other neighborhoods; it's a growing phenomena shared by many other major cities with sizeable Chinese populations in the United States and Canada. Here's what we do know. According to the Library of Congress, San Francisco is the "largest, oldest and most visibly recognizable Chinatown outside of Asia." Phone calls to various institutions, including museums, cultural centers and Chinese Chambers of Commerce for example, were not returned by press time.) And U.S. Census data, while useful and searchable by zip code, does not easily reveal Chinese populations. But according to the 2000 census, there are 55,864 people of Asian heritage in New York's historic, downtown Chinatown and 22,733 Asians in San Francisco's historic downtown Chinatown. Population issues aside, there are plenty of parties to attend and preparations underway for the lunar New Year. Here's what we found in this first of two reports.

Los Angeles

In terms of size, L.A'.s Chinatown is tough to quantify -- it's in the top five perhaps, but it's important to note that there may be more people of Chinese heritage in Southern California and suburbs surrounding Los Angeles, says Holly Barnhill, press representative for Los Angeles's Chinese New Year festivities. The downtown neighborhood itself, while significant, is not as large as one might think and it's also become home to many Latino immigrants she says. Nevertheless, the city's Chinatown Business Improvement runs a web site called Chinatown Los Angeles (tel. 213/680-0243; www.chinatownla.com). This melting pot of a city also throws a party to celebrate the New Year, organized by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce (tel. 213/617-0396, ext. 10; www.lachinesechamber.org). Search through the calendar and click on "upcoming Chinatown events" reveals a number of activities related to the holiday. Preparations start on Saturday January 21, with a cooking class with chef Jet Tila. The Chinese New Year Festival and Parade takes place on Saturday February 4 at 2pm, along Broadway and Hill Streets. The 107th Annual Golden Dragon Parade features over 50 floats, bands and others will participate, including Miss L.A. Chinatown Queen and her court.

The festival portion will take place on New High and Spring Streets, from 10am-9pm, on the same day. Lion dancers, a mahjong tournament, live music, cooking demonstrations, and children's activities dominate the agenda. Admission is free and parking is available at Dodger Stadium; a free shuttle will transport people to and from the event. Other activities include an "Undiscovered Chinatown" tour and a car show, and a 500-person tai chi demonstration.

According to Barnhill, there are no special hotel promotions running for Los Angeles's Chinese New Year. "It is really a family celebration, so most people stay with families," she says.

San Francisco

San Francisco's Chinatown (www.sanfranciscochinatown.com) has a web site includes some information about the history of the neighborhood-mostly milestones. The San Francisco Chinese New Year Festival and Parade (tel. 415/391-9680; www.chineseparade.com) is just that: a parade with a huge, block-long Golden Dragon, for starters. Portsmouth Square at Clay and Kearny Streets is regarded as a center of activity -- board games, tai chi and discussion are common sights. There's a Miss Chinatown U.S.A. pageant held Friday night, February 4. It is a 50-year-old contest with scholarships and prizes. The actual parade takes place on February 11 in the evening, starting at Market and Second and ending at Kearny and Jackson. Bleacher tickets are $30; call to purchase.

While you're there, wander around and check out the Chinese Historical Society of America (tel. 415/391-1150; www.chsa.org), with artifacts tracing the history of Chinese immigration, the Chinese Culture Center (tel. 415/986-1822; www.c-c-c.org) with its ongoing exhibit of arts and crafts. For more information on the neighborhood, visit its web site Related events and exhibits such as "Parade in the New Year: A History of the San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade" runs at the Chinese Historical Society from January 1-February 27. The San Francisco Symphony is holding a Chinese New Year celebration on Saturday February 5 at 2pm.

The parade's web site is also a good place to peruse deals for lodging. The Broadway Manor Inn (tel. 800/727-6239; www.broadwaymanor.com) for example, is offering 10 percent off, free covered parking and Internet access if you mention the parade. It's strictly a budget-minded operation that also AAA approved; a quick web check revealed rates that start around $52 for a basic room with a queen bed. Additionally, the Hilton Garden Inn at the San Francisco Airport (tel. 650/347-7800; www.hiltongardeninn.com) is offering complimentary parking, shuttle, high speed Internet; task for the Chinese New Year Special, advertised at $69 per night plus tax, good on February 10, 11, 12. For something closer, opt for the Handlery Union Square (tel. 415/781-7800; 800/995/HUSH; www.handlery.com), advertised at $159 per night including parking, plus tax, good February 1-19. It's a block off the parade route -- ask for "Chinese New Year Celebration" special room rate.

Vancouver

According to the Greater Vancouver Visitors and Convention Bureau, (tel. 604/682-2222; www.tourismvancouver.com) one third of greater Vancouver's population (which encompasses suburbs) of nearly 2 million people are of Asian descent, helping to create the third-largest Chinatown in North America. The 15th Annual Lunar New Year Festival (tel. 604/273-1655; www.lunarnewyearfestival.com) runs from January 26-29 and includes traditional lion dances, martial arts, opera, fortune telling, music contests and fashion shows. The event takes place at the Pacific Coliseum and admission is $4. More information will follow soon on the web site. Additionally, you can visit the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden (tel. 604/682-4008; www.vancouverchinesegarden.com) a classical Chinese garden with plum trees in bloom. Similar activities -- martial arts, fortune telling, calligraphy, storytelling and traditional arts exhibit by the Chinese Canadian Artists Federation are all part of it. The Festival parade winds through the streets of Chinatown around noon.

Although it's not strictly related to the Chinese New Year, the tourism site lists several promotions including "Dine Out Vancouver," running from January 20-February 2. Over 144 restaurants will participate, creating prix-fixe menus that range in price from $15 to $35. Piggybacking on that special, some hotels are offering a special package that includes a three-course dinner, one night's stay and other goodies, as low as $228 CAD (about $175 USD), and offering their lowest rates of the year. Details for both of these specials, including participating hotels and restaurants, will become available on January 3. It is worth noting that Vancouver has some truly fantastic dining spots.

Hong Kong

In conjunction with the New Year, you can also travel overseas straight to the source. Gate 1 Travel (tel. 800/682-3333; www.gate1travel.com) is offering a "7-Day Chinese New Year in Hong Kong" trip starting from $899 for Los Angeles departures on January 25. Other cities and departure dates (January 26 or 27) are also available. The five-night trip brings concludes with a parade on the evening of the New Year, a harbor cruise and fireworks overlooking Victoria Harbour. You'll stay at the three-star BP International House, a tourist class hotel in the heart of Kowloon; buffet breakfast daily is included. Two other hotels are also available during this time, but in different deals. The "7-Day Discover Hong Kong" runs concurrently with the New Year if you want, and accommodations include the Kimberley Hotel, which is priced at $999 based on a cash discount price and departures from Los Angeles for travel between January 17-26; and $899 for January 27-March 30 travel. It's a four-star hotel with a spa, Internet access, situated in Tsimshatsui.

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