Jen Chung is a modern woman. The 28-year-old ad exec founded the blog Gothamist.com and even met her fiancé on the Internet. But when her mother told her that having her wedding during the Year of the Rooster might doom her marriage, Chung says, “I wasn’t taking any chances.”
This is what’s known as a “widow” year in Chinese culture. It’s an almanac quirk that recurs every four years or so when the first day of the Chinese New Year (set by the lunar calendar) falls after lichun, the first day of spring (set by the solar calendar). A year with no lichun means no harvest, no passion, no new beginnings—and possibly no children.
With brides like Chung choosing to wait out the bad luck, Chinatown’s banquet halls, photo studios, and bridal shops are watching their fortunes fall. “Everyone has it bad,” says Kim Wang, who owns Digital Art Video. Both Wang and fellow photographer Henry Leung say bookings have dropped to “less than half” of the previous year’s. Of course, last year’s numbers were unusually high because of panicked couples racing to the altar to beat the widow year, which began February 9. (Marriage licenses for Asian couples were up 50 percent during January, according to the city clerk.)
It is possible for an astrologer to find a day auspicious enough to counteract the lack of lichun, but it’s tricky work that depends on the alignment of some twenty-four dates on the farmer’s calendar with the zodiac signs for both bride and groom. “I am very, very careful. If I pick the wrong day, I will ruin their life,” says John Tsang, a Lafayette Street feng shui master. Even in a good year, entire months can be off limits. Tsang says June is undesirable because it’s a middle month: “The bride or the groom will only walk halfway on their marriage and then will break up.” August and sometimes July are terrible because they contain Yue Laan, the day when “hell will open up their door and let all the evil devils come up.” October and sometimes September are somber times to remember the dead, and February’s out because of the Chinese New Year. April 2006 looked safe to Chung, until she got a reprimand from her mother: “You can’t do it that month! It has Sweep Your Ancestors’ Graves Day.”
By narrowing the already narrow window of lucky days, a widow year makes maintaining a steady stream of business all but impossible. Certain days become piled with bookings while entire months go dead. “It means you need more people and equipment,” says Kenny Lau of the popular M.C.-D.J. group Sang Along. “Like, the year before the Dragon year was really busy because everyone wanted to get married so the next year they could have a Dragon boy.”
The way to stay afloat in an industry governed by ancient tradition might be to specialize even further. According to wedding insiders, shops on East Broadway are flourishing, with a clientele of new immigrants more worried about green cards than lucky days. Other stores cater to less-superstitious ABCs (American-born Chinese) like Cheryl Yuan. She’s getting married on January 28, 2006, the last day of the widow year. “Bad luck be damned,” she says. “My friends won’t notice if I got married on a bad day. But they will notice if I get married on Super Bowl weekend.”