Celebrations and Traditions
Yam Bui! (飲杯): Drink Up!
Kung fu troupes. Ribbon dancers. And dragons, lots and lots of dragons. Over one hundred costume-studded entries queue up on Market Street for the largest Chinese New Year parade outside of Asia. Once organizers give the thumbs-up to start moving, Miss Chinatown U.S.A. and her court wave to adoring fans while high school bands march in unison. Parade organizers set two million firecrackers ablaze, leaving everybody wincing and cupping their ears. Not to be missed is the crowd favorite: the 288-foot-long golden dragon maneuvered by over one hundred trained martial artists, who bring it to life.
Every January or February, depending on the lunar calendar, Chinatown beams with pride. This illuminated night parade draws as many as half a million visitors to San Francisco, chanting, ''Gung hay fat choy'', Cantonese for “Happy New Year.” The 1.3-mile route commences on Market Street, weaves around Union Square, and winds up on a straight path down Kearny Street, the border of Chinatown. Blanket-clutching spectators huddle in reserved bleacher seats. Experienced parade-goers arrive hours early to secure the best sidewalk spots. Together, one million live spectators and TV viewers watch the dynamic annual event.
The San Francisco Chinese New Year parade, the first in the country, dates back to the 1860s. When the outside world was later invited to attend, the parade was an instant hit. By 1958, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce took over programming and organization. Decades later, when the local TV station televised the parade, the chamber appealed to sponsors for financial support to elevate its pageantry. Today, Southwest and other well known companies have their names emblazoned on banners and souvenirs. Critics say these company monikers dilute the event’s cultural purity. Others counter that the support of corporate America confirms that Chinese traditions are a welcome addition to the country’s heritage.
Another Chinatown custom is the Flower Festival, held before the first day of Chinese New Year. In preparation for the sixteen-day holiday, families must clean their homes, sweep out bad luck from the prior year, and decorate with specific flowers and Chinese proverbs. Chinatown is the ideal place to purchase New Year blooms (chrysanthemums, orchids, and cherry or apricot blossoms) and greenery (jade plants and lucky bamboo) for growth and good fortune.
On parade weekend, the Chinese Community Street Fair gives outsiders an inside look at the beloved neighborhood, with over one hundred booths run by nonprofits, corporations, and mom-and-pop businesses. Visitors can sample New Year snacks from a Harmony Tray, a circular dish divided into sections of eight (the number for prosperity) or nine (denoting longevity).
If you pay respects to a Chinese family, honor the hostess with a full bag of oranges. Bring good-luck tangerines with stems and leaves still attached, signifying fertility and secure relationships. Stockton Street markets sell these by the boxful. You can also give children lucky red envelopes, known as hung bao, stuffed with coins or fresh dollar bills. Chinatown stationery stores carry hung bao of varying sizes and colors throughout the year.
Celebrations are laden with rituals as natural to the Chinese as flying is to birds. Beliefs stem from a combination of ancestral worship, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and village practices. You can witness these being played out in Chinatown at Chinese New Year and in the fall at the Autumn Moon Festival.
If you come during non-holiday times, keep a lookout for Chinatown customs. See the drummers and lion dancers leaping outside a store? They are commissioning a new business with their acrobatics and exploding firecrackers.
In the evening, you may spy a bride and groom stepping into a restaurant for their reception. For decades, San Francisco’s Chinatown operated as the wedding banquet capital, where families rushed to book vast venues a year in advance. Not only were couples obliged to invite their parents’ friends, they were expected to invite all their parents’ associations and business affiliates whether they knew them or not. In Chinatown, the days of the cast-of-hundreds receptions have dwindled as mini-Chinatowns in suburbia compete with their newer and larger banquet rooms.
A few Chinatown restaurants can accommodate big soirees where guests feast on eight or nine (again, the lucky numbers) dishes, each rife with meaning. Midway through the meal, the couple, parents, and bridal party form a human convoy, toasting friends and relatives at each table. Guests should stand and clink glasses, echoing the phrases Yam bui (“Drink up”) and gung hei (“Congratulations”). By this time, the bride has changed from her Western gown to a form-fitting cheung sam dress.
Another marital observance is the tea ceremony. The couple kneel before their seated parents and serve tea with both hands. The parents sip and place hung bao on the tea tray while imparting words of blessing, which can move families to tears. In-laws, grandparents, and relatives take turns as bride and groom humbly offer tea, remaining on their knees. Newlyweds Leanna Tu and Michael Teng upheld the tradition at a community center immediately before their taco rehearsal dinner. Recalls Leanna, “I thought my grandparents would be happy and feel honored to be served tea, especially because they live in New York Chinatown and are familiar with the ceremony. I knew my grandma also wanted me to wear a Chinese dress, so this was a great opportunity.”
Cultural conventions don’t stop at weddings. They ripple throughout a lifetime. New babies make their debut at Red Egg and Ginger parties. Far East Café specializes in these affairs, where an entire roast pig greets guests on the buffet line. Bowls of red-dyed boiled eggs and pickled ginger for prosperity and good fortune function as décor as well as appetizers. Party-goers give hung bao. Relatives bestow gold jewelry, jade bracelets, or gold coins.
Festivities to honor the elderly can be equally important, if not more so. As in wedding banquets, the family and the honoree, who has turned seventy, eighty, or any decade year after that, roam table to table for a ceremonial toast. The multicourse meal always ends with long-life, lo mein noodles. When dished into bowls, noodles should never be cut so as not to shorten anyone’s time on earth.
The end of life also overflows with symbolism. A family must place a blanket on top of the deceased for comfort. A relative is usually designated the task of handing out candy in white envelopes, a custom to erase bitterness and bring forth sweetness. In Chinatown, the formal Chinese funeral is a specialty at the Green Street Mortuary, where its namesake band leads a person’s final journey through Chinatown streets. The unique processional is considered an only-in-Chinatown fixture.
The dead are remembered annually on Ching Ming, or Tomb-Sweeping Day, set around late March or early April depending on the lunar calendar. For the Ching Ming festival, Chinatown florists order extra blooms. Families gather in cemeteries to clean the tombstone area. Those adhering to Buddhist or Taoist religions burn paper play money for the deceased to use in the afterlife.
In fall, Baat Yuet Jit, or the Autumn Moon Festival, reveres hard work and harvest. In September, the Chinatown Merchants Association organizes a gala weekend with a parade, family activities, cultural demonstrations, and food and merchandise booths. Maggie Wong, television commentator for Chinese channel Sky Link TV, plays the character of the Moon Goddess, a central figure in the fall holiday. As she floats through the streets in colorful costume and takes pictures with tourists, she relates the Chinese fairy tale about the moon goddess who drank the elixir of immortality and flew to the moon to live forever. “A lot of people don’t know why there is a Moon Festival, so this gives me a chance to explain it to them, and they are very appreciative,” she says. “Doing events like this is fun. Plus, I inherited a large collection of these costumes because my parents were in Chinese opera and in Chinese movies in the 1950s and 1960s.”
During this time, pastry makers create, box, and stack hundreds of moon cakes in the windows of Chinatown bakeries. These are as intrinsic to the holiday as turkeys are to Thanksgiving. Many variations exist, but the typical palm-sized Cantonese moon cake is wrapped with a thin brown crust filled with lotus paste and one or two preserved egg yolks. The dense, round confection, sold in a gift box of four, is made to be shared. As the cakes are sliced, each person gets a part of the moon.
Visitors can book a ticket to see Chinese opera performed by the My Opera Institute. Professional performers in embroidered silk robes and wide sleeves sing in high-pitched Cantonese, acting out classic tales. Up until the mid-twentieth century, Chinatown theaters were synonymous with Chinese opera. But when audiences waned, so did the number of troupes and shows. Frank Leong Jr., the son of immigrant parents from China, recalls attending many operas with his mother in the 1960s as a young boy. The plumage, majesty, and theatrical sword fighting were mesmerizing. “We would go backstage, and then I saw the actors taking off their makeup and realized they were regular people,” he says. “That was a revelation for me.”
From the pop-popping of firecrackers to the aroma of spit-roasted pig, Chinese rituals and celebrations are high-sensory, high-spirited affairs. Every day, Chinatown draws visitors from all over the globe, curious about Chinese ways and institutions. Meanwhile, Chinese traditions filter outward into American classrooms and corporations. Kids learn to make red paper lanterns in elementary school as companies host Chinese New Year parties for employees on their premises. Such mainstream acceptance would have brought tears to the eyes of the immigrants who landed on Angel Island. To all Chinatown guests, we toast, cheering, “Yam bui!”