They were expecting over a million to take part in, or watch, the annual Chinese New Year parade in San Francisco on Saturday February 22nd, 2013 – and the gal was there, too. Luxury hotels along the route – Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco, for a start – benefited in that guests in rooms overlooking Market Street, for instance, had amazing views. The route then turned right along Kearney with a gigantic loop up Post to Powell and back down Sutter. Because of works for the forthcoming short subway, some roads are closed completely which means the procession would make very sharp bends. Some of the hundred-plus floats were in danger of having to be taken apart at bends and put together again.
This year’s parade, the 34th, was organized by local character Rose Pak, who is political activist and consultant for the San Francisco Chinese Community. She says she plays politics like a blood sport – it was who managed to push Ed Lee into jockeying position to become San Francisco’s first Asian-American mayor, back in 2011. Ed Lee, who had previously been City Administrator, is a fascinating guy. Real name is Edwin Mah Lee, born in Seattle, whither his parents came from Toishan in China’s Guangdong Province of China. His father, a World War II veteran, cooked in a restaurant and died when Lee was 15. His mother, a seamstress and waitress, brought up six kids: Ed Lee graduated Summa Cum Laude from college and went on to University of California Berkeley Law School. An American dream.
The thousands of kids, and adults, waiting to take part in this New Year parade were taking part in a dream, too. You could see it in their faces, in the excitement. Spectators were camped out along the route for hours beforehand. Many had brought chairs, and blankets. They had come from all over (the actual population of San Francisco’s Chinatown, which is about 20 square blocks, one by 1.4 miles, in all – is not more than quarter of a million, though the density is seven times the city’s average).
The event had started ages before, and the run-up was the Miss Chinatown USA Coronation Ball the night before the procession. Presumably Southwest Airlines flew Miss Chinatown in as they sponsor the entire parade, as do KTVU and KTSF television channels and every company you can think of. Fedex and other big brands lend vehicles to pull the floats. Never modest, McDonald’s has its own float. Everything was bigger and better than you could imagine. Even the main dragon is the longest I have ever seen, all of 268 feet.
The chief delight was in watching kids’ faces. Some of them could not believe they were taking part. The previous few days, when not in school, some of them had been tagging along while their mothers and grandmothers had their faces made up, for free, in Neiman Marcus’ annual beauty week, in the big store on Union Square. I actually could not believe the theatre I had been seeing as I tried, almost in vain, to squeeze through the beauty counters of the store. It looked as if every Madame Butterfly was being painted up by the creative directors on hand from Christian Dior, Guerlain, you name it (they only went to the expensive counters for their free ‘face’, not to, say, Maybelline).
In this democratic – small d – age, a ‘Chinese’ parade has to be open to all. The all-ages atop fire engines prominently labelled the Asian-American Firefighters’ Association included several who had no Asian ancestry at all. The musicians in the University of California at Davis marching band looked frankly fraulein and oompah rather than elegantly oriental… oh well. I retreated to the quiet of a luxury hotel bar, delighted to have experienced the welcome to the Year of the Snake, here in San Francisco.