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Year of the Dog brings a day of fun to Jacksonville

Chinese immigrants played an important role in Jacksonville’s Gold Rush era, so it’s fitting that the Chinese New Year — the most important date on the Chinese calendar — is recognized every year as spring dawns in Southern Oregon.

Colorful and revered, the Chinese New Year Festival is also known as the Spring Festival, a centuries-old tradition of honoring ancestors. In the Rogue Valley, it is a way to pay homage to the myths and customs of those early immigrants largely forgotten until recently.

The 12th annual Chinese New Year Festival kicks off with a parade at 10 a.m. along California Street in downtown Jacksonville. Festivities will continue throughout the town until 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 17. See soccachinesenewyear.org for a full list of activities.

Chinese Lion Dance expert Alexey Wang will lead the procession of large lion and dragon puppets, musicians playing drums, cymbals and gongs, and community groups.

Hosted by the Southern Oregon Chinese Cultural Association, this year’s festival celebrates the Year of the Dog. The mythical animal in the Chinese zodiac calendar symbolizes loyalty and commitment. Activities and programs throughout the day will showcase the legacy of the Chinese in the region as well as showcase man’s best friend.

The agenda includes an exhibit of traditional brush-painting; lessons in Chinese herbal practices, acupressure and astrology; a demonstration by the Jackson County Search and Rescue K9 unit; a presentation by John Drach, training director of Dogs for Better Lives (formerly Dogs for the Deaf); a discussion by Dr. Jeffrey Judkins of Animalkind Veterinary Clinic who treats animals with traditional Chinese homeopathic medicines and acupuncture; and a book talk by Virginia Morell, author of the New York Times Best Seller book, “Animal Wise.”

Southern Oregon University professor and archeologist Chelsea Rose will present “From Oregon to Guangdong: Retracing the Path of Oregon’s early Chinese Residents” at 11 a.m. in the Naversen Room of the Jacksonville Library.

Rose has studied the Chinese immigrants’ journey to Oregon for more than a decade. She led several archaeological digs that unearthed artifacts left behind by the miners, cooks, gamblers, laundry men, butchers and merchants who resided in the old Chinese Quarters, or Jacksonville Chinatown, that was situated on Main Street, between Oregon and First streets, and south toward the Britt Amphitheater to Fir Street. She will share stories about the excavations and from her travels to the Guangdong Province — the immigrants’ ancestral homeland.

Historian Larry Smith will follow at noon. He will trace the route of the Chinese miners from the California gold fields to Jacksonville’s gold gulches. Like Rose, he will touch on how the Chinese adapted to their adopted country.

Weather permitting; Smith will lead a tour to the Long Tom, a Chinese gold-miner memorial fountain.

Chinese New Year celebrations in Jacksonville are not new, according to Rose, who was able to shake the dust off early newspaper accounts of the festivals held in the 1850s through the 1870s.

While a Chinese Quarter did exist, the history of early Jacksonville’s Chinese population is not one of isolation, but integration.

“The festivals were a wonderful interface between the Chinese and European communities,” Rose says. And, with the elaborate celebrations, they had a huge impact on the local economy.

The ranchers who supplied the pork and chicken for the traditional meals, for instance, saw a surge in demand for their products.

In addition to working the gold mines, the Chinese also were instrumental in punching the railroad through the Cascades and Siskiyous, she adds. These laborers were known to take several days off from laying track to participate in the festivities.

After the Exclusion Act of 1882 in Southern Oregon, the Chinese in the rural communities were pushed out, and by the turn of the century few remained, Rose says.

With no known descendants to carry on the tradition, SOCCA resurrected the festival in 2006.

“The resurgence in the past decade is relevant to the current American-Asian population in Southern Oregon and provides an historic link between cultures,” Rose says. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to share, observe and participate.”

Wang, a 2016 St. Mary’s High School graduate who first attended SOCCA’s Lion Dance Clinic in 2012 as a high school freshman, trains the student Lion Dance teams each year just before the festival.

In teaching the lion dance — a combination of dance, theatrics and martial arts thought to scare away evil spirits — Wang says his goal is to awaken others to the beauty and art of Chinese culture, especially fellow Chinese who, he says, have lost interest in their heritage.

Lion dancers lead the Chinese New Year parade in Jacksonville. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]