Author’s Note: This article “San Francisco’s Chinese Heritage” is a stand alone article on my website. However, a parallel article “Historic Chinatown San Francisco: The Cantonese Enclave” is a chapter in my new book/ebook Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips. The subject of San Francisco attractions also appears in my book/ebook Northern California Travel: The Best Options. That book is available in English as a book/ebook and also as an ebook in Chinese. Several of my books on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page.
By Lee Foster
A visitor who happens to be in San Francisco for the February/March day of the Chinese New Year will witness an urban cacophony of unparalleled dimension.
The Chinese, who are said to have invented fireworks, know how to raise the decibel level in the urban canyons. Meanwhile, the traditional Chinese Dragon snakes its way along the parade route to begin a new lunar calendar year.
This San Francisco enclave is one of the largest Chinese communities outside of Asia. Each February, you can experience a spectrum of activities over a week of celebration. However, the night of the big parade offers the best public access to the phenomenon.
Chinese New Years Events
I remember vividly my impressions of the parade from past years. As dusk sets, downtown San Francisco erupts with fireworks. Thousands of people line the parade route, which may start at Market and Second streets. The pageant includes floats, towering Oriental deities, Miss Chinatown USA and her court. Also present are figures from Chinese legend, hundreds of costumed marchers and musicians, prides of lion dancers, and every city leader and Chinese community guru who wants election votes.
The finale, awaited with much expectation, is the 160-foot “Gum Lung” or Golden Dragon. This colorful dragon dances through the street to the cheers of onlookers. The dragon may include the head of a camel, horns of a deer, and eyes of a rabbit. Other possible motifs are ears of a cow, neck of a serpent, belly of a frog, scales of a carp, and talons of a hawk.
Though the cycle of events begins with the New Year, the first week focuses primarily focuses on the family. The second week celebrates public events.
Outdoor festivities feature lion dancers, the Miss Chinatown USA contestants, and musical entertainment.
A daily outdoor carnival also takes place in the heart of Chinatown, at Portsmouth Square, where Kearny and Washington streets meet.
The newly selected Miss Chinatown receives her crown at the Coronation Ball, an event open to the public.
Fascination with the Chinese Calendar
Part of the fascination of occidentals with this Chinese ritual is the calendar. For the Chinese, the occidental Anno Domini transforms to a lunar year. The Chinese rotate the years between 12 different creatures, sequentially. This year’s animal will be replaced in future annual changings of the featured animal by the ram, monkey, rooster, dog, boar, rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, serpent, and horse. Moreover, according to the true believers, the personality characteristics of the ruling animal deity govern the year in this Chinese zodiac.
Humorists have fun with each animal. For example, during the Year of the Ram, the punsters read the tea leaves to determine the ramifications of the animal on global as well as personal and family events. Predictions for Yeung Nien (Year of the Ram) are likely warm and fuzzy, since the Chinese ideogram for ram is the same for goat, lamb, and sheep. Serenity, harmony, and tranquillity become the probable experiences in the Year of the Ram. Who would argue with that wishful prognostication? There are skeptics who argued that such thoughts merely pulled the wool over the observer’s eyes.
The sensibility of the animal of the year may not be a major factor in the thinking of most Americans. However, in San Francisco about 27 percent of the populace is of Asian descent. Consequently, the traditions of an alternative calendar are of some major importance.
A visitor during the Chinese New Year period may hear the phrase “gung hay fat choy” or “may you prosper.” San Francisco’s Chinese heritage is on display for the public at this time.
Traditions in San Francisco’s Chinese Heritage
If you can get behind the scenes of Chinese life in San Francisco, certain partly superstitious and partly comic traditions may appear.
True believers among the Chinese hold that what you eat during the New Year period will determine your fortune for the coming year. To ensure a good year, you eat foods that sound auspicious in Cantonese.
To avoid fatal mistakes, you avoid foods that sound like “qua”, or squash, which sounds like “death” is Cantonese.
You start the new year by placing a sweet candy at bedside. The belief is that the first food passing your lips in the New Year must be something sweet. Avoid bitter melon.
You do not wash or cut your hair, or sweep the house on New Year’s Day. Sweeping could cause you to sweep away treasure.
You do not wear black or other dark, mourning clothes. You wear bright red, the color of happiness.
When visiting friends and family, you bring some “gup”–oranges or tangerines–to wish good luck and a bright life. Tangerines with a stem and green leaf attached are even better. The branching leaf symbolizes the wish for a fruitful family.
When visiting friends, you bring red envelopes, or “li see,” with “lucky money” inside, for the unmarried children of the family.
In preparing food for the festive time, you serve fish and poultry whole, from head to tail, to assure unity and togetherness.
Walking Chinatown to Discover San Francisco’s Chinese Heritage
Chinese New Year is a good time to walk Chinatown. The Chinese presence focuses roughly in a 16-block area bounded by Stockton, Broadway, Kearny, and Bush. A main street is Grant between Bush and Broadway, plus side streets, especially Stockton. Importantly, Chinatown is a city within a city, truly a fascinating place. Shops sell jade, ivory, porcelain, and silk. The area welcomes the walking traveler. On foot, you can browse through shops and explore side streets.
Grant Avenue is the main street for a general overview, starting at Bush. Stockton, between Washington and Broadway, is where you’ll find the largest concentration of markets, exhibiting an amazing array of vegetables and meats. The food markets stock vegetables such as Chinese bok choy, plus live meat, including pigeons. Numerous fat ducks hang raw or cooked. Paper-thin dried fish remind a visitor how drying could preserve food. On Stockton you may even see a butcher carve up a turtle.
Jade and ivory carving can be seen at many shops, such as Peking Bazaar (832 Grant Street).
For a spicy Chinese meal, try Henry’s Hunan Restaurant (674 Sacramento).
Chinese Immigration to California
In the 1860s and 1870s thousands of Chinese workers came to construct the Central Pacific Railroad. In recent decades Chinatown rejuvenated itself with many immigrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan. The new arrivals fill a gap when Chinese moved out of the enclave to other areas of San Francisco, such as the prosperous Richmond. Opening of trade with mainland China in the 1970s gave Chinatown another renewal. The New China Book Store (642 Pacific) carries extensive literature about China.
Portsmouth Square is the focus for visitors and for Chinese living in the immediate area. In the early morning tai chi chuan practitioners exercise here. Later in the day, children and older adults enjoy the sun of the park, the pigeons, and Chinese chess.
In the 1880s Scots writer Robert Louis Stevenson mused away his time here, just as hundreds of San Franciscans do every day. A stone bridge links Portsmouth Square with the Chinese Cultural Foundation (750 Kearny Street), third floor of the Holiday Inn hotel building. The Center sponsors interpretive exhibits about Chinese life in America and organizes guided walks through the area.
Other historical displays can be seen at the Chinese Historical Museum, 965 Clay. The Museum reminds a traveler that 80 percent of the Chinese in the U.S. trace their roots to a small region in Guangdong Province about the size of the San Francisco Bay Area. In the 19th century, overpopulation, floods, and drought caused many farm families to urge their sons to migrate to the U.S.
Importance of Asians Today in California
The importance of Chinatown in San Francisco (or Asiatown in Oakland), as symbols of the growing contribution of Asians to Northern California life, merits emphasis. Fully 1.5 million of the 5.5 million people in the Bay Area are either direct immigrants from the Orient or are descendants of earlier immigrants.
The important U.S. trading partners in the South China Sea are Hong Kong, Singapore, The Philippines, and Indonesia. Each have strong contingents of residents who are only an “air taxi ride” from their historic roots. San Francisco of today is a glimpse at the Pacific Rim, polyglot, conglomerate of people who will dominate the world of tomorrow.
About a third of the freshman class of the state’s most prestigious public university, the University of California Berkeley, is of Asian origin. The Asian acceptance is based totally on merit, though the Asian population of California is considerably smaller than that percentage. When the opportunities of Asian-origin citizens flourish in California, as they are in the 21th century, the cultural and economic life of California is immeasurably richer.
In San Francisco, travelers can join with the Chinese who, for 140 years, have celebrated a special New Year festival. Listen for the greeting “Gum San Dai Fow” (Great City of the Golden Hill).
San Francisco’s Chinese Heritage and Chinese New Year: If You Go
The information source for travelers coming to the parade is the Chinese New Year Festival Committee, www.chineseparade.com. This website is helpful generally for anyone interested in San Francisco’s Chinese heritage.
The overall San Francisco information source for travelers is SFTravel at https://www.sftravel.com/.