The dragon dance celebrates the lunar new year at Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)
Taiko and Gemma Chen may not celebrate all 15 days of the lunar new year, nor do they believe they are sweeping away prosperity by cleaning the house. But there is one centuries-old tradition the Asian American couple still swears by: having a baby in the Year of the Dragon, considered the most auspicious year in the 12-year zodiac cycle.
"We're both dragons ourselves," said Gemma Chen, "so three dragons in the family would be really, really lucky. And we're 36, so we can't wait another 12 years."
In Chinese, Vietnamese and other Asian communities across the world, it is widely accepted as fact that each dragon year brings a new wave of dedicated families eager for a "dragon baby." Every 12 years, media in China and southeast Asia report a surge in birthrates, with some maternity wards limiting the number of patients they accept for the year.
Even in the United States, the allure of the dragon baby still holds for many families.
"We've had a 250% increase in Chinese, Vietnamese clients in the last two months," said Kathryn Kaycoff Manos, co-founder of Global IVF and Agency for Surrogacy Solutions in Los Angeles.
Kaycoff Manos said she had never seen a cultural trend like this before.
"When I met a client about a year ago, they told us, 'We only want a baby in the Year of the Dragon,'" she said. "We sort of put that on the back burner, but suddenly we were getting all these phone calls from Asian clients. At first we thought it was because the economy was getting better. Now we understand."
Obstetricians and fertility centers in Greater Los Angeles, particularly in the San Gabriel Valley, have also noted an increasing number of Asian American patients planning to have babies this year.
Some centers have found ways to prepare specifically for the dragon baby boom.
Kaycoff Manos' company created the Dragon Baby Special, a personalized service that helps Chinese clients deliver babies in time through in vitro fertilization or surrogacy, connecting with bilingual fertility clinics and hiring Chinese translators.
Gemma Chen said she was at a good point in her career as a pharmacist and began planning in October for a child. The superstitious couple from Temple City asked that they be identified by their nicknames because they did not want to jinx the pregnancy. She hopes that her dragon baby, due in late fall, will be born with the brightest future possible.
"A lot of times, when we look at successful people — co-workers, friends — they tend to be dragons," her husband said. "Who knows if it's coincidence."
Although most ancient superstitions have disappeared from the conscience of second- and third-generation Asian Americans, the belief that the Year of the Dragon is lucky has persisted.
The dragon legend has remained consistent and has been passed down since early in Asian history, said Rick Chiu, a cultural presenter at the American Hakka Center in El Monte.
"It's one of the few unifying stories in all of Asia," he said in Mandarin. "China, Vietnam, Korea — there are political and geographic differences today, but the deep cultural history is all the same."
According to legend, the wife of the earliest emperor could not carry a child. She finally gave birth to a son who was a descendant of the dragon, brought to Earth to rule mankind. From then on, all people in the ancient Chinese kingdom considered themselves children of the dragon.
"Because of these roots, the dragon is considered to be a symbol of royalty, of power, of the most successful," Chiu said. "Up until about 100 years ago, only the emperor's circle could wear dragon embroidery and have the word dragon in their name. Otherwise, execution. Every Chinese word for an emperor's possessions — dragon chair, dragon cup, dragon boat — is associated."
Long, the Chinese character for dragon, is so deeply integrated into the language, Chiu said, that Chinese-speakers subconsciously internalize the importance of the dragon whenever they say everyday proverbs.
The dragon is also the only mythical creature in the Asian zodiac, a cycle that features 12 animals that embody unique characteristics — a dog is shy but loyal; a tiger aggressive and difficult to get along with. The dragon can swim and fly, traversing the seas as well as heaven. This symbolizes a life with no obstacles.
Parents hope a dragon baby will have a better chance of becoming a leader, a modern-day emperor. The child's success in turn brings good fortune to the entire family.
One first-generation Vietnamese couple from Monrovia did not devotedly follow the zodiac, even though their parents consulted the almanac before their wedding to ensure that their signs, dog and rooster, were compatible.
But they are now believers. The couple, who also feared publicity would be bad luck for the pregnancy, asked not to be named. The 42-year-old wife said she has tried for 14 years to have a baby, resulting in 10 miscarriages.
"Every specialist had given up," she said, "but we are finally having a baby through a surrogate. When everything fell into place, it happened to be in a dragon year.
"Everything is now more perfect," she said. "It's lucky for us. It makes us feel more hope for the baby."