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Tet Is Clearly No Bank Holiday

Some institutions run out of crisp currency as Vietnamese Americans flock to get new bills.

January 30, 2003|Mai Tran | Times Staff Writer

After stopping at four banks Wednesday to find crisp new currency, Tina Nguyen settled for dirty, crumpled $2 bills.

Nguyen was hunting for a stack of new $1 bills, a traditional gift of good luck to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

"Money is money at any other time," said Nguyen, 38, of Westminster.

"But for the Lunar New Year, it has to be new because it represents luck for the rest of the year."

Nguyen is among thousands of Vietnamese Americans preparing for Tet, or Lunar New Year, celebrations this week to usher in the year of the goat, which begins Saturday.

It is believed that the first week of the new year represents the fortunes or misfortunes of the rest of the year.

To celebrate the holiday, more than 100,000 people are expected to attend a Tet parade in Westminster on Saturday and a three-day festival in Garden Grove, which runs through Sunday.

The holiday is a time for renewal and family bonding. Ancestors are offered fruits that symbolize wholesomeness, plenty and good health; youngsters are given li xi -- "lucky money" -- in red envelopes.

Bank officials near Little Saigon say they had geared up for the holiday -- stocking up on bundles of crisp cash -- but already have run out of new bills.

"It's very popular at this time of year," said Yen Vu, branch services manager at the East West Bank in Westminster, who ordered the new bills in July and ran out earlier this month.

One-dollar bills and $100 bills are highest in demand, bank officials said.

At this time of year, many people travel to visit relatives in Asian countries where a fresh $100 bill has more value during currency exchange, said Josephine Choy, operations officer at Cathay Bank in Westminster.

Choy said customers usually make their requests in December. Her branch ran out of new bills on Monday, a month after it got its shipment.

At the Bank of America branch in the heart of Little Saigon in Westminster, $280,000 in new bills were gone within a week of being delivered to the branch.

"We always don't have enough," said Michelle Tran, customer service specialist.

"They don't last too long."

The largest transaction was made by a customer who requested $20,000 in new $100 bills, which he wanted for a trip to Vietnam to visit his family for the Lunar New Year.

When Tina Nguyen went to the bank, she was greeted by a sign in Vietnamese that read: "No more new bills."

But there were plenty of old $2 bills.

She pulled out $100 from her wallet and cashed in it for 50 $2 bills.

"I have no choice," Nguyen said.

"Next year, I will go to the banks earlier."

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