About 500 people gathered Saturday night to usher in the Year of the Horse at a Chinese New Year celebration at the Veterans Memorial Building in Santa Rosa.

Chinese lanterns dangled from the ceiling above attendees enjoying a catered buffet-style dinner from San Francisco Chinatown eatery Gourmet Delight, as well as beer a from Petaluma brewery Lagunitas and wine from several local wineries.

A full program of entertainment included piano and choir performances, dancers, martial arts demonstrations and a 250-foot-long Chinese dragon.

Kate Toohey of Sebastopol attended the event for the second year in a row with her grandsons. Toohey's daughter-in-law, Jen Toohey, is half-Chinese.

"It's great to learn about the culture, and the boys love the dragons," Kate Toohey said.

Posters depicting the significance of each zodiac year decorated the walls of the center, and children crowded around one corner table to learn how to make origami animals.

The celebration serves as the yearly fundraiser for the Redwood Empire Chinese Association, which serves more than 200 families in Sonoma County. The RECA, which began in 1988, offers scholarship programs, language classes and Tai Chi lessons, along with many other cultural offerings.

Proceeds from the RECA fundraiser go toward both the scholarship program and a fund for a planned Asian cultural center.

"We were able to provide seven scholarships to local students last year," said Nancy Wang, the RECA's president for the past 10 years.

The Chinese New Year, based on the lunar calendar, began Jan. 31, but celebrations in China typically span several weeks following the date, said former Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools Carl Wong.

San Francisco also held its massive Chinese New Year Festival & Parade through Chinatown Saturday evening.

Wong, who has volunteered at the Sonoma County event for the past 16years, said a significant influx of Chinese adoptees is occurring in Sonoma County, particularly Chinese girls, and the RECA sees many white families with adopted Chinese children who join the association to provide a cultural connection.

"People here in Sonoma County are pretty open and accepting of different cultures," Wong said.

Santa Rosa Vice Mayor Robin Swinth and state Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, both gave proclamations celebrating the Chinese new year during the event.

Though property for the cultural center has been purchased, the construction of the building is delayed due to the high costs of mitigation surrounding the tiger salamander.

"We're going to get it done; that's our goal and really our legacy," Wang said.

Alex Baldi, 13, came up from San Francisco with his family to participate in the event. He served as the head of the junior dragon, which performed for the crowd later in the evening.

"I really like (being) part of the dragon," said Baldi, who has performed in the celebration for the past five years. "It's so much fun."

You can reach Staff Writer Melody Karpinski at 521-5205 or melody.karpinski@pressdemocrat.com.