Ching Lacey bustled around tables laden with traditional Lunar New Year treats: fortune cookies, tangerines, dyed watermelon seeds, sugar-coated lotus seeds and steamed new year cake.
"If it rises well, it will be a great new year,'' she said of the cake, as around her the room filled with greetings, laughter and more offerings - all-American pizza and cream puffs among them.
Later, the petite woman, who was born in China and grew up in Hong Kong, welcomed the crowd. She offered holiday greetings and emphasized shared goals of learning and community.
Lacey is the principal of the Clearwater Chinese School, a nonprofit organization that offers weekend classes in Chinese language and culture. Started in 1990 in Clearwater with a few students, the school now enrolls 65 children and adults of both Chinese and non-Chinese ancestry.
Those who attend or send their children to the school mention a few key reasons for doing so. Chinese-American parents want their children to learn the language and traditions of their heritage, as do the parents of adopted Chinese children. Adult students point to China's growing economic prominence and the need to be able to communicate in a business environment.
"I travel with my job. Right now, I go to Europe. In the future, you never know, they might send me over there,'' said Chris Anderson, a 29-year-old software engineer.
They go for many reasons
Ken Murray, vice president of merchandising for Sysco Food Services, is considered a star student.
"I do work at it. My interest level is very high,'' said Murray, 57, who travels from Manatee County for class.
Chinese will be Miriam Mullen's third language. Mullen, who works for Courtesy Auto Group, is fluent in Spanish. She enjoys learning Chinese.
"I've always been fascinated with the culture, too,'' she said.
Chinese culture is emphasized along with language at the school, teacher Marian Chan said. The school also offers Chinese chess, brush painting, martial arts and dance.
"It's a very good school,'' said Lisa Maddux, the mother of three students. "We shopped around and some friends actually recommended it to us,'' said Maddux, who was born in Beijing and met her American husband, Robert, in Hong Kong.
The couple, owners of Global Stone Project Enterprises, a national granite business based in St. Petersburg, are the parents of Bonnie, 7, who was adopted from China, and twins Beverly and Bruce, 6.
Maddux said it's important that her children learn Chinese.
"I am Chinese and my parents are Chinese and they're still living in China. ... The business world is evolving so fast. China is very important in the world economy,'' she said.
'Important for them to know'
Seminole residents Jayson and Bonnie Nestler send their daughters, Sarah Rose Xiuliu, 8, Hannah Grace Ying, 6, and Rachel Marie Li, 4, who were adopted from China, to the Pinellas Park school.
"I think it's important for them to know their culture, the history and particularly the language,'' said Jayson, a retired St. Petersburg College librarian who homeschools the girls.
Teachers at the school receive a small stipend, but administrators like Lacey - who met her husband, Tom, when she traveled to the United States to study - volunteer their time. The Lacey children, Vincent, 24, and twins Chris and Tina, 22, were among the first students. On Sunday, the twins, home for the holiday from Georgia Tech, performed the traditional lion dance.
And what about the holiday cake that's considered a predictor of the year ahead? It neither rose nor fell flat, Lacy said.
"That means the year is not going to be as scary as people think,'' she said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283.
U.S. Census estimates of the Asian
population in Pinellas County, 2006
All Asians: 25,623
Each new year takes the name of one of 12 animals - rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog or pig. Thursday marks the beginning of the Year of the Rat, which is said to signal a time of change and opportunity.
The Clearwater Chinese School is at 4600 78th Ave. N in Pinellas Park. Go to mychinese.org or call (727) 544-5748.