Belleville celebrates Chinese Lunar New Year

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BELLEVILLE, NJ — As the pandemic continues and other stressors remain, it is fortuitous that we have now entered the Year of the Ox, an animal that represents strength and diligence. The Chinese Lunar New Year, which began Feb. 12, was celebrated across the globe, including here in Belleville.

Belleville holds the distinction of having hosted the first Chinese Lunar New Year celebration on the East Coast, 150 years ago, at a time when anti-Chinese sentiment was high.

“This is a very special occasion, this is a historic moment for Belleville; 150 years ago today was the celebration of the first-ever Chinese New Year on the Eastern Seaboard,” Belleville Mayor Michael Melham said during a livestreamed celebration on Feb. 12. 

While the town initially had intended to have a larger celebration, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the town to scale down its plans.

“For two years, I as mayor have talked about a huge celebration,” Melham said. “We were going to do fireworks and dragons and all kinds of crazy stuff — stuff I was really looking forward to. Unfortunately, because of COVID, we couldn’t do that, but I did not want to miss the occasion.”

Instead, the town streamed a short video of fireworks going off over the municipal building, while traditional-sounding Chinese music played in the background. Melham and others discussed the symbolism of the Lunar New Year and the historical significance of Belleville’s new year celebration 150 years ago.

“Belleville is a very unique place with an impressive history, something all modern residents should be proud of,” Melham said. “In 1870, after their tireless efforts in assisting with the completion of the (Transcontinental) Railroad, and at a time when national anti-Chinese sentiment was at an all-time high, Belleville welcomed many Chinese immigrants, making Belleville, N.J., the very first Chinese community on the East Coast of the United States. Amid the severe discrimination with local, state and eventually federal laws against the Chinese, Chinese immigrants found a welcoming home in Belleville, a testament to Belleville’s historic nature of acceptance and inclusion.”

Melham, citing information provided by Belleville Historical Society President Michael Perrone, also recounted some of the history of the town’s Dutch Reformed Church. The church’s cemetery is the final resting place for soldiers who fought for American independence. According to Melham, then Gen. George Washington stopped by the cemetery to mourn his fallen soldiers during the Revolutionary War as he and his army retreated to the Passaic River. Additionally, the church served as a safe haven for escaped slaves prior to and during the Civil War.

“On Sept. 20, 1870, a total of 68 Chinese men and boys arrived from San Francisco to work for the Passaic steam launcher shop,” Melham said. “Eight weeks after the group arrived, one of them died at the age of 28. His funeral service was officiated by then pastor Rev. J.P. Dailey. There were over 200 Belleville townspeople who joined the remaining 67 Chinese at the service, offering prayers and singing hymns.”

Another guest at the Lunar New Year celebration was Ambassador Huang Ping, consul general of the People’s Republic of China in New York.

“It’s my great pleasure to celebrate with you the Chinese Lunar New Year,” he said at the event. “The 1870 early Chinese immigrants came to Belleville with courage, diligence and the dream of a better life. And they celebrated the Chinese New Year for the first time on the East Coast. Over the past 150 years, the Chinese community has gradually integrated into Belleville and has made great contributions to the prosperity of the town.

“As the Year of the Ox is approaching, I wish the people of America’s cherry blossom capital a happy, healthy and prosperous new year,” he continued. “May the Chinese–U.S. friendship never ever end.”

As the Lunar New Year is celebrated for 15 days, the town did not end the festivities with its video message. On Feb. 22, Belleville officials gathered with a small number of residents to release 150 lanterns into the sky. Overcoming the challenges presented by the pandemic to celebrate this historic anniversary in Belleville is, it is hoped, just one example of what the Year of the Ox will bring.

“In Chinese culture, the ox is a valiant animal because of its role in agriculture and positive characteristics, such as being hardworking and honest,” Melham said. “Oxen are low-key, never looking for praise or to be the center of attention. This often hides their talent, but they gain recognition through their hard work. They believe that everyone should do what’s asked of them and stay within their bounds. They are kind, but it’s difficult for them to understand persuasion. Rarely losing their temper, they think logically and make great leaders.”