With the largest Chinatown outside of Asia (even larger than the neighbourhood of the same name in London), it should come as no surprise that San Francisco’s Chinese New Year celebration is nothing short of spectacular. With one of the oldest — and last remaining — illuminated parades in the U.S., markets and fairs and a wide array of celebrations, educational events and of course, plenty of food, San Francisco’s Chinese New Year festivities are a worthy contender to London’s festivities.
The celebration to mark the start of the Year of Horse, Lunar Year 4712, promises to be no different. As you plan your holiday to San Francisco, consider adding some of the Chinese New Year events to your itinerary.
Chinese New Year Parade
The first San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade took place in 1858 along a route that is now Grant Avenue and Kearny Street. The parade, which combines elements of traditional Chinese lantern festivals with common sights during American parades, attracted only a few thousand spectators in the early years, but has grown over the past 155 years to draw nearly one million people into the city to watch the spectacle.
The 2014 parade is slated to take place on Saturday, Feb. 15, at 6 p.m., the beginning of the Lunar New Year. The fact that the parade takes place in the evening adds to the excitement and pageantry, as among the elaborate floats, costumed performers, and dancing lions, spectators are treated to fireworks and glowing lanterns. But the highlight of the parade is almost always the 200-foot-long Golden Dragon (Gum Lung), a stunning dragon puppet manned by upwards of 100 people.
The parade route follows along Market Street near Union Square all the way to Chinatown, and spectators line up to watch hours in advance; the best spots closer to Chinatown are generally taken by 2:00 p.m. To guarantee a seat, it’s possible to purchase tickets in advance for bleacher seats at various spots along the route.
While the parade gets much of the attention, the Chinese New Year celebration actually includes several other events. About a week before the Lunar New Year, the Flower Market Fair offers the chance to purchase flowers, fruits, treats and other items to properly celebrate the New Year. While shopping is the focus, the Flower Festival also includes acrobatic, magic, dance and musical performances for everyone to enjoy.
On the day of the parade, the Chinese Community Fair welcomes everyone to learn more about Chinese culture while participating in workshops and demonstrations of calligraphy, drumming, folk dancing and more. For those who rather watch than participate, there are plenty of performances taking place throughout Chinatown that are guaranteed to entertain.
Of course, no festival is complete without shopping and food, and there are plenty of both during the Community Fair. More than 80 vendors will have booths where you can grab a quick snack — you can be adventurous and try something new — as well as purchase traditional Chinese items. Another highlight of the Community Fair is the opportunity to take photos with the giant dragon puppet and floats from the parade. What better souvenir than a family photo with the notorious Golden Dragon?
As a nod to American cultural influences on the Chinese culture in San Francisco, the Chinese New Year celebrations include several more traditionally American-style events in addition to the traditional parade and festivals. For example, each year before the parade the Miss Chinatown USA pageant takes place, and a new Miss Chinatown is crowned as a goodwill representative for the Chinese community. The 2014 New Year festivities will also include a road race through some of the city’s most scenic neighbourhoods and a basketball tournament for local schoolchildren.
For more than a century and a half, San Francisco’s Chinese population has celebrated its culture and the start of a new year each winter. Even with so many things to do and see in the City by the Bay, taking in the Chinese New Year parade and festivals is truly an unforgettable experience and the ideal way to experience this diverse city and one of its most important cultural traditions.
About the Author: Blogger Lisa Kann looks forward to celebrating Chinese New Year in her hometown of San Francisco each year.