Many immigrants were drawn to the gold country foothills during the mining boom. By 1852, large numbers of Chinese had come to the Folsom area. Some sources state that at one time, this region had the largest population outside of San Francisco. Folsom’s own Chinatown laid between what is now Leidesdorff Street and Lake Natoma with over twelve hundred residents living in the area. Shops thrived and homes were filled with families looking to settle into a new life in America.
Those that lived in the Chinatown celebrated the Chinese New Year, otherwise known as the Lunar New Year. Much like then, thousands around the globe celebrate the holiday in the present day. While western countries have followed the Gregorian Calendar, China has followed the lunisolar calendar. As the biggest celebration of the year, it begins on the first new moon on the calendar and ends on the first full moon.
Each year is represented by one of the twelve animals. The rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig are used as a measurement of time for people. While there are many variations to the story, a race was called of animals to create the Chinese zodiac. There would only be twelve winners, and each would be placed in the final order. Originally, there had been at least thirteen animals that participated including the cat. One variation of the story is that the rat who hated the cat never told the animal of the race, so he lost a place in the zodiac. Another is that the rat asked the ox for a ride across the river as the rat was not good at swimming. No matter the tale, the rat came in first and was followed by the remaining animals with the cat coming in last.
This year we celebrate 2024 as the Year of the Dragon. “If you’re born in the Year of the Dragon, you’re powerful, vigorous, and charming. You’re a leader who encourages and inspires others,” says Folsom History board chair, Greg Jung.
There are many ways to celebrate the Lunar New Year including time spent with family and friends. Before the new moon, people clean their houses to sweep out any bad luck that may have crept in through the year. During the celebration, no cleaning is done in fear that one might sweep out any good luck that remains. Red decorations are placed to symbolize joy and good luck. Small gifts are exchanged such as fruits and plants. One of the most common gifts is a red envelope with money gifted to younger generations from those that are married in the family. Fireworks are set off to scare away evil spirits and bad luck while inviting good spirits and good luck. Don’t pay bills, don’t argue, and don’t break dishes.
No matter what, the central theme is to spend time with your family and pay respect to your answers so that they may watch over you.
Traditions now remain as they did in the 1800s when Chinatown thrived in Folsom. It was a safe haven for those that received hate and prejudice from others. An alliance was developed with the Black miners who protected them, and it was often said for people to go to Folsom to be protected. The people worked hard and efficiently, taking on jobs that others would not. Many contributed as miners or building railroads across the state, but others worked as shop owners, doctors, cleaners, and more.
By the 1870s and 1880s, the population declined rapidly, and Chinatown ceased to exist. Though the neighborhood is no longer standing, the current population has returned and is celebrated throughout Folsom.
There are many ways to celebrate the Lunar New Year this month locally. Alongside gathering with family to remember your ancestors, food plays a central role to the festivities. Many local restaurants offer special menu items or you can make your own dishes such as Fa Gao, Nian Gao, or longevity noodles. Many local groups in the area host events as well.
This article was written by Folsom History staff member, Shelby Sorensen with assistance from Board Chair, Greg Jung. The title of this blog is a greeting for the Lunar New Year meaning "wishing you great happiness and prosperity."