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Love in a melting pot

Latino shops in the borough feature a lot of the same products you would typically find at your average Hallmark store -- save the face they are largely in Spanish. Photo by Alex Palmer
TimesLedger Newspapers

The diverse communities of Queens have myriad ways of celebrating, and in some cases ignoring, Valentine’s Day. Whether buying up stuffed bears or staying in for the night, the plethora of ethnic communities in the borough each respond to the holiday in their own unique way.

Strolling through downtown Flushing, one is hard-pressed to find any sign of Valentine’s Day. Falling so close to the Chinese New Year, Valentine’s Day is barely an afterthought for many in Queens’ Chinese community. The Lunar New Year is the biggest of traditional Asian holidays, beginning around late January or early February, depending on the year, and lasting for 15 days.

With such a massive celebration often overlapping with Feb. 14, the date reserved for the Valentine’s Day lovefest, red envelopes are a far more likely site in Flushing than red Valentine’s hearts. Few of the numerous florists offer any special Valentine’s bouquets.

“If anyone celebrates, it’s usually the younger, more American people,” said Jay Chan, manager at the Soy Bean Chan Flower Shop, 135-26 Roosevelt Ave., a combination florist and specialty bean curd seller.

The shop does not promote pre-arranged bouquets for the holiday and Chan emphasizes that any orders for Valentine’s flowers are custom requests.

One of the few stores in the area with advertisements up for Valentine’s Day is jewelry store Crystal Swan Inc. at the Flushing Mall, 135-20 39th Ave., which shows a window display of pink and red hearts to promote its Swarovski jewelry.

“That display is from the company,” said Michael Cheng, store manager at Crystal Swan. “It’s not really a big holiday here.”

As it happens, some Southeast Asian cultures, including Malaysia and Singapore, give the 15th day of the Lunar New Year a romantic twist, when thousands of single women, and some men, throw oranges into the sea in hopes of finding a true love. While this celebration of the Lantern Festival is sometimes seen as the Chinese version of Valentine’s Day, few in Queens describe it as a significant day.

St. Valentine would be more heartened to see the celebrations on display among the Latin American communities in Elmhurst, Woodside, and Corona. Without another major cultural holiday to compete with, Valentine’s Day has grown increasingly popular in this area, with everything from pharmacies to sex shops promoting the holiday.

“People love Valentine’s Day in this neighborhood, really at all ages,” said Luvia Bautista, an assistant at the adult shop London Boutique, 7803 Roosevelt Ave. in Jackson Heights,which is holding a Valentine-themed raffle of some of its products.

More innocent gifts proliferate as well, particularly small red or white stuffed teddy bears. Holding a small heart reading “Te Amo,” Spanish for “I Love You,” the bears are ubiquitous in the area and considered the go-to token of love among the Latino community here, much more popular than a box of chocolate.

While Valentine’s Day greeting cards are popular, also big are the more family-oriented placards. Featuring cartoons of a rabbit couple, or smiling children with hearts floating all around, the plastic cards are sold widely throughout the community and include inspirational lines in Spanish like “Thanks for accepting me as I am” and “I chose you because I love you.”

The Valentine’s Day holiday is popular among Astoria’s Greek community, chiefly among younger generations, who celebrate in typically American ways of buying gifts and taking a date out for a nice dinner.

“In terms of a Greek religious holiday, it is not, but since we are on the second and third generations in the United States, they have adopted this holiday in the broader context of American culture,” said Christos Ioannides, director of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies at Queens College.

Ioannides, added that in Greece itself there might be a mention in the media on Valentine’s Day, but that it is widely seen there as an “imported, commercial American product.”

Though Valentine’s Day is not generally celebrated in Poland, Russia, or Yugoslavia, many of the Eastern Europeans living in the Ridgewood and Rego Park areas of Queens have adopted the holiday as their own as well.

Lada Raskova, designer at Flowers by Nonna in Ridgewood, which boasts a large Eastern European community, typically sees a big rush around the 14th. This year Raskova plans to work the entire week of the holiday, and finds that the Valentine’s staples of roses and chocolates are the consistent top choices for shoppers.

But as in many of the other communities, among the Eastern Europeans, the holiday is viewed primarily as an American holiday, which they are joining in on.

“Because people live here, they get into the holidays of the United States,” said Raskova. “Plus it’s just another reason to make the girls happy.”

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