I experienced my first Chinese New Year Parade in San Francisco. It was 1991 and I had been living there for less than a year. Having just left work late (surprise!), I stumbled right onto the parade. I remember standing there, in a fog of firecracker explosions, mesmerized, watching as the dragons weaved their way down the street. These days, having seen more of these colorful parades around the world, I will always remember and be in awe of my first experience with the oldest one around.
What I didn’t know at the time is that the Chinatown in San Francisco is the oldest in North America. And that it is also one of the largest in the world.
In the mid 1860’s, San Francisco first started to hold the Chinese New Year Parade. The parade combined elements of the Chinese Lantern Festival with an American style parade. The parade, which runs along Grant Avenue and Kearny Street, is the longest and oldest event of it’s kind anywhere.
Many metropolitan Chinatowns have a paifang (large red gateway) at the entrances with special inscriptions in Chinese that are sometimes accompanied by mason lion statues on either side greeting visitors.
Historically, these gateways were donated to a particular city as a gift from the Republic of China and People’s Republic of China governments (such as the paifang in Chinatown, San Francisco) and business organizations.
The dragon and lion dances are performed in Chinatown every Chinese New Year, to scare off evil spirits and bring good fortune to the community. Ironically, many lion and dragon dances are considered more preserved in true form in Chinatowns than in China itself. This discrepancy is attributed to the fact that traditional Chinese customs, including lion and dragon dances, were unable to flourish during the political and social instabilities of Imperial China under rule of the Qing Dynasty and were almost eliminated completely under the communist order of the People’s Republic of China under Chairman Mao Zedong.
However, due to the migration of Chinese all over the world (particularly Southeast Asia), the dances were continually practiced by overseas Chinese and performed in Chinatowns.