Members of the Southern Wind Lion Dance group perform the Lion Dance during a celebration of the Lunar New Year at South Coast Plaza on Thursday. (SCOTT SMELTZER, Daily Pilot / February 8, 2013)

The crystal-buckled, silk satin handbag, which will run shoppers up to $1,725, is the brand's first foray into holiday merchandising, Hauser said.

Thursday evening, South Coast Plaza officially kicked off its celebration with a reception featuring, among other things, several members of the Asian Stilt Circus Performers and a performance by the Southern Wind Lion Dance troupe, a part of the Vietnamese Student Assn. at UCI.

While South Coast Plaza has celebrated the Lunar New Year for several years, this was the center's first large party.

Guests packed into the Jewel Court area to snack on dumplings from the popular dim sum chain Capital Seafood, and sip the evening's signature cocktail.

Executive Director of Marketing Debra Gunn Downing said about 1,100 people sent RSVPs to the party. The guest list, she said, was culled from stores' top customer lists, as well as outreach efforts into the local Asian community.

"We got an incredible response," she said.

Robert Sun, chairman of the American Chinese CEO Society, said recognition of a major Chinese holiday by a "mainstream business" like South Coast Plaza definitely greases the wheels of international commerce.

"South Coast Plaza has been friends working with our organization for years," he said. "They recognize us, and we recognize them."

Frequently, he said the society will bring delegations of visiting dignitaries to shop at the center.

That's exactly the idea, said Werner Escher, South Coast Plaza's executive director of domestic and international markets.

The party and festivities, he said, are just another aspect of South Coast Plaza's longstanding commitment to creating a shopping experience, which started decades ago with the addition of valet parking and concierge services.

"South Coast Plaza doesn't just draw from the core market," he said. "It is an international destination because of the experience."

While party guests said an annual South Coast Plaza party wasn't likely to supplant dinner with family or more traditional celebrations anytime soon, it was nice to see the holiday gaining more mainstream recognition.

"This is great," said Nancy Lee, 63. She said she'd noticed more recognition of the Lunar New Year over the past "maybe five years."

It makes her "kind of proud," she said.

Paul Lee, 52, said he was enjoying the party, though his friend, Peter Cheung, 32, said festivities in China are "more exciting."

Still, Lee joked, "I've never seen so many Chinese in one place."

Twitter: @jillcowan