Larissa Hsia-Wong can thank the San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade for launching an academic journey that has taken her to Georgetown University to earn an undergraduate degree, Harvard University for her master’s and now finds her, at 35, working toward a doctorate at San Francisco State University.
Hsia-Wong grew up in a Chinese family in Marin, at a time when there weren’t many Chinese families in her community.
One year, when she was a little girl, her parents were watching the Chinese New Year Parade on TV. School groups were marching in the parade, and her parents heard the announcer call out the name Chinese American International School.
Her parents had never heard of the school, and it “piqued their interest.”
When they did their research, they learned that CAIS was a small K-8 Chinese language immersion school in San Francisco.
Hsia-Wong’s mother had been born in Hong Kong and came to San Francisco when she was 6. While she grew up speaking Chinese, she did not read it or write it. Her father was born in Los Angeles and did not speak the language at all. They both wanted Larissa to learn Chinese.
And so the casual mention of the school during the parade ultimately led them to enroll Hsia-Wong at CAIS, the school where she began her educational odyssey in 1990.
But that sort of serendipity won’t happen this year; the pandemic has forced the cancellation of the parade for the first time since it began.
The San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade is the culminating event of the Chinese New Year Festival & Parade, a two-week celebration of the Lunar New Year organized by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. The festival includes, among other things, two street fairs, the Chinatown YMCA run and the Miss Chinatown U.S.A. Pageant.
The parade attracts hundreds of thousands of people and, since 1987, has been broadcast on KTVU-TV Fox 2 and rebroadcast to regional, national and international audiences.
The parade has been designated as one of the Top 10 parades in the world by the International Festivals & Events Association, according to the parade website. It is the largest parade celebrating the Lunar New Year outside of China.
The parade attracts local dignitaries and politicians both to march and to sit in the VIP seating. The parade celebrates traditional Chinese culture with lion dancers and colorful floats and costumed marching bands.
The parade always ends with an enormous illuminated serpentine dragon that winds through the streets. In 2020, the dragon was a 288-foot-long Golden Dragon, carried by more than 180 people, according to the parade website.
While the roots of the Lunar New Year festival in San Francisco go back to private celebrations in the 1860s, the modern celebration is traced to W.K. Wong (also known as H.K.), a founder of the Chinese Historical Society of America and a public relations expert.
In an interview contained in “Longtime Californ’, a Documentary Study of an American Chinatown,” W.K. Wong said that in 1953 it was his idea to initiate a public celebration of the Chinese New Year in San Francisco. He explained that one motivation was the negative press the Chinese community received around gambling. He said, “What’s the matter with them? There are so many good things about Chinese and our Chinatown. Why do they play up this gambling?
“We have rich traditions, colorful legends and authentic pageantry,” Wong said. “Our art, music, dance, fashions, etc., should be showcased for the public and shared with our American friends.”
Another reason was that “New Year to us Chinese is the holiday of holidays, a sort of Christmas, Thanksgiving and Fourth of July rolled into one. It is our most joyous period of the year. … I thought this would be the appropriate time to invite our American friends to share in this happiness and to appreciate and learn things about Chinese.”
David Lei has been involved with the parade for more than 30 years, including serving as parade coordinator and parade committee member. He laughs when he says, “I am the person everybody comes to for the cultural history, the history of how the parade got started.”
A frequent lecturer on Chinese culture in America, for more than 20 years Lei served as vice chair of the city’s Asian Art Museum. Lei explains, “I have the cultural background because I am an immigrant, I speak the language. … I’m really into the arts and culture aspects.”
As Lei tells it, Wong — together with two other members of the San Francisco Chinatown community, Charlie Leong, a Chinese journalist, and Col. John C. Young, who was involved with supply logistics for the U.S. military — were members of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, and they were looking for a way to bring more tourism to Chinatown, particularly during the winter months.
The Lunar New Year’s celebration was the biggest festival in Chinatown, but it was only celebrated within the Chinatown community, “so they thought, let’s open it up to the rest of the world, the rest of San Francisco,” Lei says.
Lei laughs as he explains that the three had grown up in America not China, and they were more familiar with American celebrations than Chinese. “They knew parades, bands and … pageants. So that’s what they put together. It is really more American than Chinese.”
They started promoting the celebration in 1953. “They had no money, no budget, so they counted on their friends and volunteers,” Lei says. They set up a stage on Grant and Pacific. They selected a young woman — the daughter of the owner of a Chinatown restaurant — to be “Miss Firecracker.” This title “was purely made-up,” Lei says, “China would never have a Miss Firecracker, but these were PR people.”
Wong “made a lei out of firecrackers and put it over her neck. And that picture made it into the Associated Press National, and a lot of local papers picked it up. It brought a lot of attention to Chinatown. Huge crowds showed up because they were curious about Chinatown,” Lei says. “So they did it again the next year and the next year and the next year.”
Ironically, in China, at that time, Lei says, there were no parades for the Lunar New Year. While there were processions that would accompany a funeral or a religious event, parades as a public celebration were not part of traditional Chinese culture.
Lei got started with the parade as a 10th grader in 1965. His father was involved with the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, and that year, they did not have enough people to hold up the large dragon that winds through the streets at the end of the evening. There were enough people for the head and tail but not enough to hold up the body.
Lei remembers that year the dragon needed something like 70 people, two to hold up each of the 35 poles that supported the hoops that framed the dragon’s body as it wound through the streets.
Lei was promised $7 and a new pair of tennis shoes if he would work as one of the people holding up the dragon’s body. The money and swag were a powerful inducement, and he agreed. He also didn’t have trouble recruiting lots of friends from school when they got the same deal.
He says the work was pretty easy, all you had to do was hold up your pole and follow the leader. When the dragon straightened, you could see you were in a long cloth-covered tunnel. “You could look straight down” all the way to the other end.
The parade is always held at night. The dragon is illuminated from within, giving it some of its mystery and power. However, in order to do that, Lei says, there had to be a portable generator inside to power the lights.
“If you look at the dragon, it is a big lantern,” Lei says. “It is not for performing. The performance dragons are much thinner, and you can maneuver them. This dragon you can’t move, especially when it is tied to a generator. You can’t do the moves. It is really a festival of lanterns.”
But while it might be a more romantic explanation, the lanterns aren’t the reason the parade is held at night. That was because many of Chinatown’s residents worked all day, and the organizers said, “Let’s do it after work.”
The parade changed over the years. At the beginning, it was a Chinatown event with the marchers on Grant Street. But as the parade expanded, it outgrew the narrow streets of Chinatown. Now, it begins at Market near Second Street then heads southwest to Geary where it turns west, looping Union Square by turning north on Powell and then east on Post, heading toward Kearny. The route continues north on Kearny to the edge of Chinatown.
A major reason for the growth of the parade was the 1987 agreement with KTVU.
The introduction of TV coverage changed how the parade was run. Lei says that KTVU told the organizers, “OK, we’ll broadcast it, but your parade is not good enough.” The station suggested getting a parade consultant. For the broadcast to work, there needed to be a precise schedule, and things had to be scripted to the second so that the commercials could be included. It definitely had to finish by 8 p.m. “Running a parade for TV is totally different,” Lei says.
But while there were tradeoffs, the changes were good for both sides. With the broadcast, there came commercial sponsors. That increased the number and quality of floats and bands and the groups participating. It used to be “You show up, and you’re in the parade.” Now, Lei says, “we can pick and choose because so many people want to be in the parade.”
According to Lei, the parade became KTVU’s “No. 1 sponsorship event of the year.”
A byproduct of that is that it gave the Chinese-American community “some air time … besides gang wars or illegal political contributions, something that’s cultural, that’s positive, that’s a platform for us to tell a story,” Lei says.
For William Gee, the parade has a powerful cultural significance.
Gee was born and raised in the Bay Area and has been involved with Chinatown events since he was a junior at Washington High School in 1995. He got involved through a Chinese American club at school, where students would “share opinions and perspectives of the Chinese culture.”
That led him to volunteering, and today Gee is the public relations coordinator for the parade. He has a 9-year-old and a 14-year-old, and the latter has started to help him with his parade duties.
For Gee, the central point of the parade is not so much about China but about Chinese Americans, the people who emigrated here to find “better education, better possibilities in America.” The parade is the way “that we represent our traditions to the general public.”
“It is basically trying to establish our identity within America and … showing where do we fit in and how do we contribute,” he says. “We are … hoping to share our traditions with other people to hopefully educate and convey understanding of what traditions mean to us.”
The 2020 parade — held February 8 — squeaked in before the pandemic shut everything down, but this year the organizers had to cancel the live parade.
Cancellation will have big economic consequences. While Gee doesn’t have exact numbers, he says that in a normal year Chinatown merchants may get as much as 30% of their annual revenue from the Lunar New Year celebrations. The loss of that revenue comes on top of the crippling business loses merchants have already experienced from the pandemic.
The organizers have done their best to hold onto some of the parade’s magic. There will be a two-hour TV special on KTVU at 6 p.m. Saturday that will feature digital 3D floats and scenes from prior years.
The Chamber has also organized what Gee describes as a “reverse parade.” Instead of going to a place to watch the parade come by, this year, people can get a map of the location of 11 special pieces of artwork and travel to see them.
Each of the pieces pays homage to the Year of the Ox in the form of a life-size ox fabricated from Styrofoam, coated with fiberglass, and then painted by a local artist, like the Hearts in San Francisco project. The oxen are scattered throughout the city (one is at the Oakland Airport). Viewers can post a selfie with an ox and, if they are lucky, win one of 24 prizes.
Yet, while these events may be able to preserve some of the festival’s feeling, they won’t have the same meaning and history.
Chinese American Immersion School has a long and valued relationship with the parade. Every year, students like Larissa Hsia-Wong volunteer to perform in the parade and, for many years, parents — like her father — labored nights and weekends to build a school float.
The head of the CAIS — Jeff Bissell — is not Chinese, though he has spent most of his life studying China. He spent 15 years in China, has advanced degrees in China studies, speaks Chinese and runs a school devoted to the immersion study of Chinese culture and language.
When Bissell speaks of the parade, he does so with particular care and respect. He points out that for all of his lifetime’s fascination and study of China, he is not Chinese American and he necessarily views the parade as an outsider to the tradition.
With that caveat, he says that while there is a “WOW aspect to it, kind of like the Super Bowl … it’s a spectacle and everybody loves that,” it also generates a tremendous “sense of pride and community among the Chinese American community. You know, it’s their day and it’s also a great city ritual. There’s very few people, I think, who haven’t heard about the Chinese New Year Parade in San Francisco.”
Hsia-Wong attended CAIS from kindergarten through eighth grade, and it was there that she had her first involvement with the parade.
Some of Hsia-Wong’s best memories are participating in the parade with her CAIS classmates and her father. He had some construction background, and “he often would be the one that would design the floats for CAIS and build them with his friends and other parent volunteers. And while he did that, like I would hang out with him at the piers, which was really fun.”
Hsia-Wong always volunteered to be in the group of CAIS performers who marched in the parade along with the float. The performances were choreographed to go with the Chinese zodiac animal of the year or the theme of the float.
“The Year of the Rat, I remember my dad designed a float that looked like it was a huge block of Swiss cheese, like 10 feet tall. And he made it out of plywood, and we would pop out of the circles and wave and sing a song about a mouse while we did that.”
For Hsia-Wong, the parade was a magical time of the year, it “drove our Chinese New Year celebrations as a family.”
Participating in the parade gave her a strong sense of community and pride and it was “how my sense of Chinese identity really came forward. I was proud of it. … We were performing in this great tradition.”
She says, “being able to be involved in something that was bigger than ourselves was just special.”
“It was a way of accessing Chinese culture … that’s not like, you know, dragons, dumplings or like red, red, red. It was special. We could add our own influence, when I look back on it, it’s the Chinese American experience and not just Chinese culture.”
* The 2021 Chinese New Year Parade for the Year of the Ox will be a televised event held at 6 p.m. Saturday on KTVU-TV Fox 2 and KTSF-TV Channel 26. Information on other parts of the celebration can be found at https://chineseparade.com.
Joe Dworetzky is a second career journalist reporting for Bay City News Foundation and Local News Matters after a 35-year career as a lawyer. He graduated from Stanford in 2020 with a Master’s degree in journalism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.