Ringing in the Chinese New Year

When is late not late? When it's a Chinese New Year celebration held within a couple weeks of the New Moon that ushered in the year.

Chinese New Year was actually Thursday, Feb. 7. But Joey Ngan, a spokesman for the organizing Oregon Chinese Cultural Association, says it is not unusual to celebrate the holiday &

it's the Year of the Rat &

a bit later.

"Traditionally, it was often celebrated from New Moon to Full Moon," Ngan says. "People don't do that so much any more."

Kicking off the weekend festivities will be the Chinese-American International Piano Institute Winners Concert at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 15, at the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater in Medford. A full slate of activities and performances is planned for the following day in Jacksonville, headlined by the first-ever visit here of an award-winning Chinese puppet troupe (visit ).

The Rat is the first astrological sign in Chinese astrology, and the beginning of a sequence that repeats every 12 years. A person is traditionally believed to have attributes of the astrological animal under whose sign he or she was born.

CAIPI is a project dedicated to assembling outstanding young pianists from China, North America and other nations. The piano competition was held in Sichuan, China, for young pianists. Organizers envision an annual event.

"We're hosting the winners," Ngan says. "They'll be playing all over the West Coast."

Pianist Alexander Tutunov, of Ashland, Southern Oregon University's Director of Keyboard Studies, is a member of the CAIPI faculty (visit ) and will be the host of the Craterian show. Proceeds will benefit the Southern Oregon Chinese Cultural Association, which hosts the Chinese New Year celebrations in Jacksonville.

Speaking of which, the Dragon Art Studio, of Portland, will bring to Southern Oregon for the first time a nationally renowned show featuring traditional Chinese rod puppets. Shows are scheduled for 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. in the U.S. Hotel Ballroom at 125 E. California St., Jacksonville. Admission is $5.

"We've been wanting to bring them for a long time," Ngan says of the famed puppeteers.

Other activities on the day include a 5-kilometer fun run billed as the Rat Race, a parade through Jacksonville starting at 10:30 a.m., and programs around town on cooking, astrology, feng shui, martial arts, acupuncture and Chinese culture and history.

Chinese puppetry began more than 1,000 years ago. Rod puppetry, in which puppeteers control the action with long rods in both hands, uses Chinese music and operatic movements combined with beautiful puppets to tell stories.

Award-winning puppeteers Zhengli Xu and Yuqin Wang have performed at The Kennedy Center, the Library of Congress, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, the Atlanta Olympics and around the nation. Wang and Xu are master puppeteers with more than 30 years of performing with traditional Chinese troupes. They came to the United States in 1996 and settled in Portland.

Chinese puppet theater is performed in a curtained structure that hides the puppeteers. The plays are based on traditional stories from mythology, history and literature and feature both human and animal characters.

The traditional rod puppet is 30 to 42 inches tall. It is supported by a central rod and has its arms moved by two smaller rods. The puppeteer must never bend the elbow of his raised right hand, since this would make the puppet tilt at an unnatural angle.

In the hands of a master, the puppets are surprisingly life-like. In a recent Dragon Art show, puppets carried baggage and pets, danced and played ping-pong. A turtle was able to retract its head, but it couldn't avoid the fish that kept biting it on the tail! A crane flew, walked like a crane and even preened its feathers.

Xu, 62, was born in Sichuan province and began his puppetry studies at 15. Wang, his wife, started her training in the Beijin Opera School at age 10. She moved to puppetry in 1964 and has performed around the world. In addition to being puppet masters, both are pianists.

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