Over 30 Years with the CNY Festival &Paradeby Peggy Kennedy
The first time I attended the Chinese New Year Parade was in the mid 70’s with my friend and roommate, Sue. I was in college with a self-created major of Asian Studies, a fact that made my advisor look sideways at my blonde hair and freckled skin and ask, “Asian Studies?” “It’s the only subject I can imagine myself enjoying for four years,” I replied.
Sue and I made our way across the bridge from the East Bay that evening in her sputtering Spitfire with the top stuck down and found a place on the sidewalk near Union Square among the thousands of folks that had gathered. Although I’d heard about the event for years, unlike Sue, I’d never attended.
From a distance we heard what sounded like gunfire. I hunched my shoulders. “What’s that?” I asked, eyes open wide.
“Oh,” she said, “that’s just firecrackers. You haven’t heard anything yet.”
Minutes later, a group of giant puppets in Chinese robes approached, throwing exploding packs of firecrackers on the street in front of them and then walking nonchalantly through them as though it were a field of daisies. A contingent of children in gold and red silk passed by rhythmically beating drums attached at their waists. Sue turned to me and yelled something as she pointed further down the street.
“What?” I shouted.
“Here comes the dragon!” she yelled and grinned widely.
Off in the distance, colorful lights outlined a magnificent beast stretching for a full city block, its head dipping and rolling, its bright red, green, and gold body undulating as its dozens of legs veered left and then right. “It’s huge!” I grinned back. As it approached, smoke from hundreds of firecrackers blended with lights from the creature’s body to cast a mythical glow. The dragon dipped its giant head toward me as if to bow. I was officially entranced.
Fast forward ten years. My childhood sweetheart Paul and I had been married and were now separated, sharing custody of our seven-year-old son Shane. I had stopped selling real estate and moved to SF to do what I really loved – producing and raising money for large scale events like the Bay Bridge 50th Anniversary and Necklace of Lights, and Mayor Art Agnos’ Neighborhoods of San Francisco-themed Inaugural Party. When I needed entertainment to represent Chinatown for the Inaugural Party, I was told to contact Chinatown power broker Rose Pak to secure a lion dance group. After the party, Rose approached and said I should raise money for their Chinese New Year Parade. She asked me to meet with Wayne Hu, whose family was instrumental in developing the Parade since the 1950’s and who himself had worked on the Parade since he was a kid.
“We want to take the Parade from being a local event to being a nationally-recognized event,” Wayne told me the next week in his office. “KTVU broadcast the Parade for the first time this year but for them to continue, we need to elevate the quality of the Parade to make it television-worthy. For that, we need more money to build higher quality floats.”
Here was a guy who obviously loved his community and was savvy enough to know what needed to be done to take their well-loved event to the next level. I liked him immediately.
“Do you think you can help us?” he asked.
“Yes,” I blurted out. What was I thinking? I had never raised money for a Parade. I smiled and shook his hand. I was just going to have to figure it out.
KTVU brought in a television Parade coordinator who also helped me put together our first sponsorship packages. Thus, I began my hunt for sponsorship dollars at a time (1988) when no one in the corporate world knew what the term “sponsorship” meant, and no company outside the Bay Area had heard of the Parade. When a guy in Minneapolis with General Mills said, “Let me get this straight – you want me to send you money to help pay to put on a Chinese parade in San Francisco? Why in the world would I want to do that?” I hung up and screamed.
As it turned out, the Chamber did have sponsor-type relationships for the Parade with Bank of America and for the Miss Chinatown events with Harrah’s – both dating back to the 1960’s. As my phone calls and faxed letters (remember faxes? lol) got rejected by sponsors all over the country, I thanked God that the Parade and Miss Chinatown events would each have at least one sponsor.
I was excited to finally set up a meeting with the California Lottery in Sacramento. When the day came, there was a snowstorm throughout the Bay Area! I went anyway. In Fairfield, a big rig had jackknifed and lay on its side next to the freeway. Several cars were sliding from one lane to the next. I came within inches of hitting the car in front of me. I took a deep breath, loosened my grip on the wheel and laughed morbidly. I would either bring in sponsors or die trying. Luckily, I made it there, and even more luckily, they agreed to do a float. Hurrah! A couple of weeks later, PG&E agrees to come in. This sponsorship thing just might work!
It was clear that regardless of how many sponsors I brought in, the Parade would go on. Each Friday, the Parade committee would meet to discuss Parade elements and logistics and troubleshoot problems. Over time, the event expanded to include the Flower Fair and Community Fair overseen by the Street Fair Committee. Our committees became teams, but much more than that we became members of a family that didn’t want to let each other down. I had never seen such dedication to a community and to the goal of creating wonderful events. I knew that whatever I needed for sponsors would be done, and it would be done right. I was proud to be a member of the family.
In 1990 Southwest Airlines became a sponsor and a decades-long partnership began in which amazing Southwest marketing and promotion people (Mona, Shirley, Jolyn, Mindy, Laura, Kelsey, Emily to name a few) shared their LUV, expertise and generosity to help take our event to the next level. Over the following years, other sponsors joined in – many returning each year with Chinese-themed floats and fair displays that captivate and inform the over 2 million Parade and Street Fair attendees. They are all part of our Chinese New Year family.
In late 1990, Paul and I reunited. The next year, we sat with Shane in the bleachers watching the Parade, marveling at all the beautiful floats. But Shane’s attention was focused further down the street on the martial arts group doing flips and spins as they swung nunchucks and swords. He was obviously inspired: by the time he reached high school, he had earned his 2nd degree black belt.
In 1995 Paul and I had Blake, who spent many Friday mornings crawling under the table at our Parade meetings. Part of me credits these meetings for inspiring Blake to later become fluent in Chinese and attend Peking University.
By 1996, the IFEA (International Festival and Events Association) had recognized the Chinese New Year Parade as one of the top ten Parades in the world and Hong Kong had asked if our Parade team to consult with them on their own Lunar New Year Parade. Over the next decade, KTVU would win several Emmys for their Parade broadcasts. We certainly had come a long way!
Looking back, I believe that all of us – the Parade and Street Fair committees, KTVU Fox 2, KTSF and all our sponsors – have become the legs of the dragon, propelling it left and right, spinning its magic as it winds its way down the streets of San Francisco, enchanting all who are lucky enough to see it pass by.
Last year, after working on the Parade for almost three lunar cycles, I handed the sponsorship reins over to the very capable hands of Christina Hoang who, as it turns out, ended up marrying Wayne Hu’s nephew, Eric.
The dragon has come full circle… and is pleased.