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The Teng Fei lion dance troupe, of Oakland, performs at several Chinese businesses as they light firecrackers in Chinatown during the Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations in Oakland, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013. This year is the Year of the Snake, the sixth sign of the Chinese Zodiac. (Ray Chavez/Staff)

OAKLAND -- The pounding of drums filled the streets of Chinatown on Saturday as lion dancers roamed from shop to shop bestowing blessings for the Lunar New Year, which began Feb. 10 and marked the year of the snake, according to the Chinese zodiac.

"It brings good luck," said a woman leading one group of lion dancers as a wreath of firecrackers exploded outside the Shooting Star Cafe on Webster Street.

For weeks, families cooked and cleaned and prepared red-and-gold envelopes filled with dollar bills in preparation for the holiday, which can continue for weeks in China, Hong Kong, Malaysia and other places where it is celebrated. The festivities are much shorter in the United States "but still very happy," said Shirley Chung, a woman of Chinese descent raised in Vietnam. "It has good meaning, good luck."

The 60-year-old compared the holiday to Christmas.

"Everybody is so happy," she said, standing on a balcony outside a Lunar New Year celebration at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center.

Inside, children sat at tables cutting out snakes for a lantern, and teenagers assembled small collages to add to a mandala created by artist Nancy Hom for the occasion.

Each concentric layer in the 6-foot circle was made up of objects connected to Oakland Chinatown, including gold painted railroad spikes symbolizing the transcontinental railroad built by Chinese laborers. The line ended in Oakland.

Although several Chinatowns sprang up and were demolished, the anchor of Oakland's Chinatown has long been where the cultural center stands today, near Ninth and Webster streets.

"We want to acknowledge the importance of the holiday and the communities that celebrate it," the cultural center's outgoing director, Mona Shah, said.

"We do it because it's a need of the community," she said.

That community has shifted over time with many Asian-Americans moving away from urban Chinatowns beginning in the 1960s.

Lunar New Year is a way to reconnect.

"For me it's a way to celebrate my heritage," said Sherry Wang, whose parents came from China.

The 38-year-old Concord resident, who grew up in Fremont, said her Chinese heritage became even more important after the birth of her daughter, a 3-year-old whose father is white.

Pat Tong, 58, lives in Oakland but was raised in Florida by a father who came from China in the 1940s and a white mother. She began to explore Chinese culture when she moved to the Bay Area.

The traditions can be confusing, but they are also "very meaningful," Tong said, holding a strip of red paper printed with a Chinese blessing for good health.

Were you born in the year of the snake?
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