Chinese New Year Parade: San Francisco Knows How to do it Right

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Chinese New Year Parade: San Francisco Knows How to do it Right

By Kathy Chin Leong; Photos by Dick Evans

Every year Market Street is transformed into an elaborate staging area for the San Francisco Chinese New Year parade, believed to be the largest of its kind in the country.  Hours prior to the launch, novel floats, scores of marching bands, lion dancers and dragons of every shape, size and color, arrange themselves in a spectacular array.  They will have practiced for weeks, even months, for this special two-and-a-half-hour extravaganza, moving down a route that is one-mile long. 

Being a second-generation American born Chinese, my heart swells with pride to see the way my culture is being displayed and honored.  In 2019, when photographer Dick Evans and I started working on the photo documentary book, “San Francisco’s Chinatown,” which was recently released, I had the opportunity and a good reason to go behind the scenes for the country’s top parade where more than three million spectators see it in person and on television.

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What a contrast to the emotions I experienced as a child.  My first Chinese New Year parade was a complete shock to my system.  Back in the 1965, I was all of six years old, and we drove to San Francisco’s Chinatown for the event.  I had never been to a parade before, and I didn’t know what to expect. 

By the time we arrived, my father had to find parking, and if you have ever tried to secure a spot in the middle of this enclave during Chinese New Year, you will know how stressful that can be.  I cannot remember where we parked, but it was probably in some alley where it was free. We got out and walked, and the hoards of people on the streets was tantamount to a human barricade like none other.  Every few seconds a string of firecrackers would go pop, pop, pop, pop, causing me to jump because I didn’t know what they were. 

With fingers in ears and unable to view anything beyond the sea of thick clothing from one unrecognizable body to another, I felt totally discouraged.  However, I was suddenly hoisted up on Dad’s shoulders, now able to see lion heads and dragons dancing and gyrating to the thumping of drums and the three-stringed erhu.  Bright floodlights seemed to be shining everywhere, following the musicians and Chinese acrobats down the street.  

Now at the 2019 parade, I was amazed at how accessible the event could be.  People were able to purchase bleacher seats ahead of time to obtain views and actually sit down. The Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco also sponsored a viewing parade area, so anyone getting a ticket could enjoy the festivities from the overhead bridge located towards the end of the route.  Earlier that day was a festival where booths from every Chinatown shop and non-profit lined the streets with giveaways, toys, food, and souvenirs.  Strains of Chinese music from street musicians filled the air. Since it was the zodiac year of the pig, tourists were donning pig hats, jewelry, masks, you name it.  The happiness and excitement was palpable.  

And what a thrill to see the unity of San Francisco’s diverse population represented on the floats and on the streets, singing and cheering, tossing out plastic gold coins. Chinese clubs, bands, and Chinese schools from all over the Bay Area – Fremont, Cupertino, Pleasanton, San Jose-  held their banners high. San Francisco’s past and present politicians waved from convertibles.  I saw corporate sponsors such as Southwest Airlines, Salesforce, Lucky supermarkets brandishing their logos on the parade floats.  I thought, “How ironic that in the 1800s, the Chinese were discriminated against to the point where they were told to go back to China.”  Now companies want to be a part of an ethnic celebration.

As the hours ticked on that night staring at dusk, 5:15 p.m., to darkness, 8 p.m., the energy and unbridled enthusiasm only grew.  You could see very clearly the dazzling neon lights dressing the floats and the colorful lights on the costumed ribbon dancers and small children charming all the spectators.

Signaling the end of the parade was the traditional blast of several thousand firecrackers that left a pile of red paper flying about on Kearny Street afterward.  Upon leaving the premises, I felt peace and jubilation.  Chinatown’s parade has come such a long way just as the Chinese people have in America.  I look forward to bringing future generations here to share the joy, the culture, and the firecracker pageantry with earplugs on, of course.

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Want a copy of “San Francisco’s Chinatown” by Dick Evans and Kathy Chin Leong? We’re giving away a free copy to 5 lucky viewers on our Parade Preshow! Tune in on Saturday, February 20 at 4:30pm on Facebook Live (bit.ly/cnypreshow2021).

Or if you want to purchase your copy of “San Francisco’s Chinatown”, book proceeds benefit the SF Chinese Culture Center to help support businesses and residents in Chinatown most affected by COVID-19.

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