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Flush with color, San Francisco ushers in Year of the Pig

For one moment Saturday, the City sprang to colorful life.

Dragons danced on the streets; marching bands dictated a rhythmic beat; dancers, performers did what so many envy them for; police motorcycles sung their sirens; pig-themed floats hovered along; the streets decked in red and gold decorations — people packed the sidewalks; applauding, laughing and pointing fingers in awe.

This is how San Francisco welcomed in the Year of the Pig. The parade and celebration appeared as if they zapped The City into a moment of tranquility — a moment devoid of the City’s many hassles and filled with peace and fun. It was San Francisco at its near best: a diverse pool of people from around the Bay Area and world, together, enjoying and honoring a culture, a history. Beautiful.  

Ching Wong/SFBay Performers march down Kearny Street through Chinatown during Chinese New Year Parade celebrating the Year of the Pig in San Francisco, Calif., on Saturday, February 23, 2019. (Ching Wong/SFBay)

For Lucy Lin, who came from Santa Cruz with her two sons, this was her second time at the City’s annual Luna New Year parade. She said she moved to the U.S. from China 14 years ago and was surprised at the similarities between San Francisco celebrations and those back home.  

At 3:30 p.m., almost two hours before the parade began, Lin set up camp with three folding chairs and blankets on the sidewalk of Kearny street between California and Sacramento streets. She said:

“I came from China and still have the memory [of the celebrations back home], and I want my kids to have the same.”

Diane Durvine of Marin attended the parade for the first time Saturday, despite the fact she once lived in the City for eight years. She said the publicity for this year’s parade caught her attention and added:

“It’s important that we allow people to express themselves and have celebrations like this. It brings us all together.”

The first San Francisco Luna New Year parade in 1860 was organized by Chinese immigrants who wanted to educate and share their culture with the community. The event eventually mushroomed into the biggest celebration of Asian culture outside of Asia.

This is the Year of the Pig, the 12th animal in the Chinese Zodiac. The new year began Feb. 5.

According to a press release by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, the group which has organized the celebration since 1958, Luna New Year dates back thousands of years and celebrates the “reawakening of nature,” a time also of thanksgiving and reunion.  

Just before the parade kicked off, politicians assembled at the intersection of Market and Second streets, where floats, a slew of Mustangs and old-school cars lined the way.

Ching Wong/SFBay A dragon dancer performs during Chinese New Year Parade celebrating the Year of the Pig on Market Street in San Francisco, Calif., on Saturday, February 23, 2019. (Ching Wong/SFBay)

Moses Corrette, IFPTE Local 21 treasurer, waited in his 1958 Mercedes 190SL for District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin, whom he would later chauffeur along the parade route. Corrette said he drove Peskin at prior parades and the supervisor asked him to do the honors this once again.

Of his official parade role, Corette said:

“It’s an honor. It’s a cultural center for Chinese Americans; it’s becoming a destination point for [people around the world.]”

District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney and District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar came out to take part in the parade for the first time.

Haney told SFBay:

“It’s great that they allow us elected officials to participate. It’s a beautiful celebration of the Chinese New Year and of our great Chinese American community here in the City. I’m excited to have this be the first one as supervisor. … We get to celebrate in an official capacity with so many of our residents and people who travel here. It’s one of the nice things we get to do.”

Mar said that he participated in the parade when his brother served as a supervisor but was excited to be doing it now “as a VIP, so to say.”

“The Chinese New Year parade is one of the best examples of San Francisco really shining the spotlight on our diverse cultures that we have here. … In this case, the Chinese New Year parade [is] a really bright spotlight. It has an impact nationally or even globally.”  

San Francisco Mayor London Breed, the parade’s grand marshal, arrived on the scene as more cars and floats packed onto 2nd Street.

When asked how it felt to be part of the parade for the first time as mayor, Breed said:

“I was really honored, and I’m so excited to just be here to feel the energy, to see the kids, to see the bands and I love parades in San Francisco, I always have. So just to be in it as the grand marshal of one of the best parades San Francisco does is absolutely amazing.”

Breed was also asked about the passing of San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who would have taken part in the event. She said:

“He’s always been there for folks in our community — whether it’s someone who is his client, or for a question, or a concern, or an issue. … He lived his life the way that he truly wanted things to be.”

Breed added that although his absence brings sadness, the celebration is what Adachi would want:

“It is really sad that he is not here, but we’re gonna celebrate. … He’d be right here, smiling in his car, giving out hugs and love and that’s the kind of guy that he was. In his honor, we’re gonna be happy today and celebrate his spirit.”

The weather played in favor of the parade as well, with a mild hissing wind and a rainless sky. People cheered and chatted with excitement, their breath visible in the brisk 50-degree air.

By 5 p.m. pedestrians were limited to sidewalks only with yellow
“Caution” tape and barriers cordoning the crowds away from the street.

The clanging of music rose, drums reverberated. Some people leaned in against barriers, many sat in folding chairs or on blankets, while others stood in any space available, some propped up on news boxes. And with the familiar sound of firecracker strings igniting, the parade officially commenced.

The floats and performers snaked up Market Street, turned at Union Square and made their way through Chinatown on Kearny Street until they came to Columbus Avenue.

In the heart of Chinatown, locals and visitors held their own celebrations with magic shows and live music. Portsmouth Square packed its usual crowd. Older folks played cards in patches around the plaza and kids zoomed around the playground; others sat on the array of benches, chatting or snoozing off. Music by “A Beautiful Chinatown Tomorrow” played music from the center of the plaza.

Just a little farther down at Grant and Washington streets, the spectacle of advertisers and businesses took place with lines of booths. With most streets blocked off to cars, the foot traffic took the shape of a chaotic, beautifully orchestrated motion of disarray.  

Just before she ran out in mid-sentence to help a customer, Cai Lin, owner of a gift shop on Clay Street, said:

“It’s good for my business — I like it.”

Vendors with cotton candy clipped to long sticks roamed the streets looking for those with an appetite for the pink and blue onslaught of sugar. One vendor who preferred not to provide his name told SFBay:

“We come here every year to sell candies. People and children love them, and it’s good business.”  

Ching Wong/SFBay A woman sitting on a skateboard rushes down as people light firecrackers on Clay Street at Chinatown during annual Chinese New Year Parade in San Francisco, Calif., on Saturday, February 23, 2019. (Ching Wong/SFBay)

By 6:30 p.m. the sky had turned black but the parade route was lit by big, portable, bright lights installed along Kearny Street. People squeezed onto sidewalks to catch a glimpse of the festivities, the crowd occasionally roared with cheers and police officers handed out stickers to children.    

Tammi Palfreyman, originally from Cambridge, England, came for the first time with her two children.

“Living in the Bay Area for three years, we’ve never yet experienced the Chinese New Year in San Francisco, and we were very excited to see all the different cultures and nationalities that come together to celebrate it here in San Francisco.”

She added:

“There is a real feel about China about it, here in the middle of California. [And] everybody is so friendly, we have made so many friends, it’s exciting, it’s fun. We would come again, without question, every year.”  

Breed, the grand marshal, came through on her car and was received by thunderous applause fitting for The City’s mayor.

The 288-foot-long Golden Dragon, arguably the main attraction, awed everyone, snaking along the street in grandiose fashion. But the pigs were not to be overshadowed.

Alisha Ruland, who came from Sacramento, said:

“I’m here for the Year of the Pig because pigs are my favorite animals, and I wanted to see the big dragon and the lion dancers. … We don’t have anything large and elaborate like this parade [in Sacramento].”

Ruland added that she appreciates Chinatown in San Francisco as one of the biggest areas in the U.S. to celebrate Chinese culture:

“It’s amazing. … The firecrackers, fireworks and all the happy people and cute little kids. It’s beautiful.”

At the same time, the unofficial celebrations adjacent to the main route of the parade grew bigger.

Fireworks, largely unofficial, reigned throughout the night. The loud bang of one explosion, which some laughed off as “homemade firework,” rang in ears and knocked on chests for long seconds. On Clay Street, at the Kearny Street intersection, people congregated on sidewalks to watch explosions pop and the red paper wrappers inundate the street.  

Riccardo Matzumoto, who came from Stockton with his wife, was hyped. He said:  

“We kept on hearing the [loud] fireworks and that just really caught my attention,” Matzumoto said. “I don’t even know how to explain that [big explosion], that one was just like — it was huge. It was something else, I have never seen a firework that strong before. It’s a great time.”  

A police van eventually drove along Clay Street to stop the unsanctioned fireworks celebration.

One officer told SFBay that fireworks are illegal — well, not the small ones, but the big ones. They arrested no one. In no time, the explosive celebrations recommenced on another street.   

The night continued as it began with people roaming streets littered with bang snaps and fireworks. Some folks hopped in and out of bars. The storefront lights and shiny decorations accentuated the darkness, illuminating the concrete like glitter. At this point, everything felt like a party, with Chinatown as the gracious host. But most importantly, people were happy in that lingering moment of tranquility.

Fernanda Ambriz, who was visiting from Mexico with her dad and sister, snapped pictures of her fireworks. Ambriz said she was shocked at how large San Francisco’s Chinatown is, one of the “best Chinatowns” she has ever been to., and added:

“We didn’t know [the parade] was going to be right now. We stopped everything just to come see because it is something you have to see … This is something you don’t see often.”

Just before 9 p.m., street cleaners began sweeping up Kearny Street and the brief moment of tranquility with it.

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