Asian-Americans have celebrated the Lunar New Year, their most important holiday, with little outside interest for decades.
Not this year. Three corporate giants are commemorating the Lunar New Year with promotional campaigns aimed at Asian-Americans. Want to bring your favorite niece from overseas? Disneyland is offering a free vacation package, including international airfare for four from anywhere in Asia to Los Angeles to tour the family amusement center.
Haven't talked to the grandmother who misses your voice? AT&T; is helping you reach her by lowering rates for international calls.
Want to get some extra money for "lucky envelopes" given at this time of year? Bank of America is ready to kick in a bonus for first-time customers who open a money-market account at participating California branches.
This is part of the Americanization of holidays, a process in a country where Christmas is synonymous with shopping and Independence Day is an excuse to set off explosives.
It's not hard to figure out why. The Asian-American population has nearly tripled since 1980, from 3.5 million to 9.6 million in 1996.
Some Asian-American leaders say they don't mind the promotions. In fact, they say, it might help other Americans understand their culture by giving it greater exposure.
"At this point, I don't see any harm in doing that," says a bemused I-Kuang Liang, who is president of the Taiwanese Chamber of Commerce of the Greater Washington Area. "It may let the public in general be aware that [the holiday] symbolizes our culture."
Adds Charles Kim, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Korean American Coalition: "They're business people. If I was in their shoes, I would do the same thing."
Not everyone is so relaxed about the newfound commercial observance.
"It's just an access for them to the market," says Steven Johng, Washington editor of the KoreAm Journal, a national magazine focusing on Korean-American issues. "It's a purely capitalistic ploy."
Whatever the motivation, targeting Asian-Americans is based on substantial numbers.
The Asian-American population is projected to grow at an annual rate of 5.2 percent. By comparison, the Hispanic population is projected to grow by 3 percent, African-Americans 1.3 percent, and Caucasians 0.6 percent.
With such growth, Asian- Americans will account for 10 percent of the nation's population by the year 2050. They represent 4 percent now.
Asian-Americans are a marketing force, with buying power of about $9.8 billion, according to Lisa Skriloff, president of New York-based Multicultural Marketing Resources Inc.
There's no better opportunity to tap that market than the Lunar New Year. Commonly called the Chinese New Year in this country, the two-week event -- celebrated by many Asians -- honors the past and embraces the future.
Part of the appeal this year is that it brings an appealing marketing symbol -- it's the Year of the Tiger.
The Lunar New Year is based on a 12-year cycle, each year symbolized by an animal.
Wednesday marked the start of the Year of the Tiger. People born during the Year of the Tiger -- which includes 1914, 1926, 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974 and 1986 -- are considered powerful, passionate and daring. And in the United States, the tiger is an appealing and strong image, lending itself well to marketing paraphernalia, such as television and radio ads and trinkets such as calendars.
There has been a slow awakening to the holiday's importance, though. Since 1993, the U.S. Postal Service has been doing its part to spread the word by printing stamps commemorating the Lunar New Year.
Gaining recognition has come slowly, though, even in a city long associated with an influx of Asian immigrants.
Peggy Kennedy, marketing director of the San Francisco Chinese New Year Festival and Parade for the past 10 years, was one of the pioneers in trying to promote the Lunar New Year in the city.
It's her job to secure corporate sponsorships for the celebration, which began during the 1860s.
"I would get on the phone and say the name of the event, but it was like they never heard about it," says Kennedy, who holds a bachelor's degree in Asian studies and was hired by the city's Chinese Chamber of Commerce. "The whole thing was alien to them. It was, like, 'Why are you calling me?' "
Attitudes began to change when companies realized the potential of the Asian-American market.
Disneyland, AT&T; and Bank of America are the first giant companies acting to tap into that market.
Disneyland -- joined by AT&T; and Bank of America -- is running a sweepstakes for a vacation package for eight people, including domestic airfare for four to Los Angeles and international airfare for four, accommodations at the Disneyland Resort and admission to Disneyland.
The offer also includes a prepaid calling card for five minutes of international calling to Asia and three months of checking -- free of monthly service charges.
Disneyland has blanketed Chinese and Vietnamese radio stations, says Ana Laura Rosandich, manager of multicultural and international marketing for the family amusement institution.
"Southern California is a diverse community, and the Chinese market as well as the Vietnamese market is important to us," Rosandich said.
"We feel that in order to reach all of our consumers, the message needs to be in the language of their preference," she said.
AT&T; is also cutting rates for Asian-American customers who sign up with the phone company by March 31. Calls to South Korea are 46 cents a minute -- down 13 cents through AT&T;'s international one-rate plan. The promotion also offers calls to Taiwan for 46 cents a minute, Hong Kong for 49 cents and China for 80 cents. The rates the company usually charges are 60 cents, 61 cents and $1.20, respectively.
Suzanne Chung Park, an AT&T; spokeswoman, acknowledged that the promotion is aimed at first-generation Asian-Americans.
"There definitely has to be some business reason for us to do this, but at the same time, it's good for a company to care about the individual needs of the customer," said Park, who celebrates the Lunar New Year with her husband and two children. "We're just trying to be sensitive to their needs."
'A huge market'
Asian-American customers who opened a money-market account at a Bank of America California branch by Feb. 6 received a $50 interest bonus. The catch: Customers must open and maintain a balance of at least $10,000 for 60 days to receive the bonus.
"It's a huge market for us," says Terry Chi, Bank of America's Asian segment manager. "It's a market that can't be ignored, and we only want to reach out to the community and show our commitment to the market."
Many Asian-Americans, including Albert Wang, publisher of the weekly Washington China Post, applaud the companies for spreading awareness of the Lunar New Year -- which has been somewhat tempered in Asia by the recent, disastrous plunge in some currencies and securities markets.
"More people will begin to appreciate our culture," Wang says. "This is a positive trend."
But a few Asian-American leaders question the result of such promotions. Magazine editor Johng, for example, is concerned that the commercialization could distort the spirituality of the Lunar New Year.
"Throughout history, the meaning of major holidays has been obliterated," Johng said. "Christmas is not even a religious thing anymore. It's a distasteful rendering. It's unfortunate."
lTC Susan Au Allen, president of the U.S. Pan Asian Chamber of Commerce, said she does not want to see major shopping events tied to the holiday.
"Business is cutthroat and can be too mercenary," Allen said. "My message to the companies would be, 'Don't overdo it.' "
Pub Date: 2/09/98