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Inside the Dragon – San Francisco Chinese New Year
Parade Secrets

by Rosemary Gong

No one really knows when the Lunar New Year falls. Dictated by the ever-evolving lunar calendar, it’s typically squeezed somewhere between Super Bowl Sunday and St. Valentine’s Day. This year, the Year of the Dog arrives on February 16. It’ll ignite two-weeks of festive feasting, street fairs and beauty pageants and escalate into the biggest block party of its kind, the San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade on February 24.

The parade is a bustling business with hundreds of baubled dragons and sequined lions frolicking to the insistent beat of drums and cymbals. Ear-drum splitting firecrackers explode in a cloud of white smoke and line the streets in auspicious red colored paper. Delicate ribbon dancers twirl and glide with towering portrayals of the legendary silk-robed Eight Immortals on stilts. The 201 foot-long Gum Lung (gold dragon) is the star attraction. The imperial creature takes a small army of 100 people to carry through the parade route.  Intricately wired with colored bulbs from head to tail, the Gum Lung delivers an electrifying grand finale on Chinatown’s biggest night of the year. 

When peering into the viewer stands, it’s clear that you don’t have to be Chinese (Vietnamese, Cambodian, Indonesian, Singaporean or Malaysian) to celebrate the Lunar New Year.  In fact, there are two unlikely suspects instrumental to the parade.

Months prior to the Lunar New Year, a team is scheming behind a monolith steel door of a discreet San Francisco warehouse on an operatic stage with 10-foot Chinese deities and royal thrones. Peggy Kennedy, one who has often been mistaken for a “Kennedy,” because she looks like one, and Dave Thomas, who describes himself as the “shadow of Chinatown.” They can be considered part-mind and part-muscle of one of the Top 10 Parades in the World named by the International Festival and Event Association and the only illuminated parade in the country – San Francisco’s Chinese New Year Parade.

In the late 1980s, when the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce strove to expand the community’s parade on Grant Avenue, they turned to Kennedy. She was someone they considered a pro after producing several mayoral inaugural galas, the SF Symphony’s Black & White balls, and the Bay Bridge’s 50th anniversary celebration.

 “They had a vision to educate Americans about Chinese culture and make it accessible for everyone. It meant positioning an ethnic community celebration as a national destination. They wanted it televised. They needed corporate sponsors. And, all those community schools-ters – they had to stay,” Kennedy chuckled.

“But you’re not Chinese!” – is a common refrain Kennedy hears when meeting corporate sponsors face-to-face for the first time.  The sponsors are nationally based marketers and tend to assume she’s Chinese American who married a Kennedy. She responds with a dead-pan expression, “I’m not?” followed by a hearty laugh. There’s lots of laughter required in Kennedy’s business. And there was a time when approaching prospective sponsors wasn’t so warm.

In fact, the corporate marketing departments were bone-chilling cold. “First, I was calling to ask for sponsorship level money, participation, and commitment. Second, it was for some strange event out in San Francisco. Third, it was for the Chinese community. It was a lot of cold calling, lots of rejection, lots of what are you talking about?!”

Kennedy’s response came out of the 1990 U.S. Census numbers when the size and purchasing power of the Asian audience came to light. By 1992, Kennedy found the voices on the other end more receptive. Marketers discovered the Asian American population was not only growing in significant numbers – up to 25% in some major urban cities – but the segment’s growth in income, education, and home ownership levels were outpacing other groups. And Kennedy began to line up sponsors with long term commitments that included Southwest Airlines, Cathay Pacific Airways, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, AT&T, and the local Fox channel. 

Collaborating with sponsors on float concepts is Kennedy’s niche.  She dives into Chinese astrology, legendary fables, and the Asian arts of poetry, dance and music to sprinkle corporate floats with a broad palette of Chinese symbolism. This is when Kennedy recruits her partner in creation – Dave Thomas, owner of East West Floats.

Thomas moves and speed-talks like a Robin Williams comedy act. His warehouse is the length and girth of three football fields, and it’s where he weaves his magic. “I look at small things in a big way. It started when Chinatown began to give me all their garbage. Old lion and dragon heads, robes and drapery, odds and ends of signs, and we use it all to build a visual banquet.”

Thomas has lived and breathed San Francisco’s Chinese New Year Parade for over two decades. He produces approximately two-thirds of the 20 floats featured in the event. “The Chinese like to identify people by their functions. At first the Chinese Chamber called me the ‘karate guy,’ then I became the ‘costume and prop’ guy, now I’m the ‘float builder.’ But, I’m really the Chinese stuff guy,” said Thomas.

In 1985, Thomas crashed the Chinese New Year’s Parade when he arrived on the scene with his non-Chinese San Jose-based martial arts school. “I couldn’t officially get into the parade at that time because I didn’t have a Chinese school. You had to be Chinese back then.  So we sneaked in with a friend’s school that needed some bodies. We ended up bringing in a troupe of 100 which was an impressive tour de force.”

To conceal their ethnicities, Thomas’ students wore golden masks while performing kung fu on the street. As they approached the judges’ station at the end of the parade in the heart of Chinatown, the students performed their martial arts routines and then ripped off their masks revealing their true selves. After a beat of silence, the crowd roared with delight. Thomas’ school took home a trophy that night.

Thomas continued to rabble-rouse through Chinatown until the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce called him into their offices. Inside the inner sanctum, three founding members of the Chamber were waiting. Thomas recalled the conversation being led by Wayne Hu, the president of the Chamber at the time. Hu began the conversation with how good talent is hard to find and how talent and commitment need to be nurtured and developed. Slowly, Thomas began to comprehend the conversation and he mustered the courage to ask, “Are you offering me a job?”

Affirmatively nodding, the Chinese Chamber members said they wanted Thomas to keep building and storing the Chinese props and materials and they were going to pay him. They also mentioned that he didn’t need to hide behind a mask anymore. 

Thomas is a heavy consumer of Chinese films, Asian art books, and cultural performances. He stalks the retail aisles of Chinatown for samples of what he can build out 10 times the size of the original. Thomas’ reference points are typically only four to six inches tall. He selects items based on what his eye regards as being Chinese, although he’s never been to China. He builds the floats according to the parameters of being:  1) 50-feet in length to maneuver San Francisco’s streets, 2) 14-feet in height to avoid brushing against Muni’s bus wires, and 3) water proof. 

“The parade happens whether it’s rain, shine or heat stroke. It’s uncontrollable and all the floats are made for it. I see the rain as kind of good for parades. It’s nature’s way of cleaning. Everything that’s kind of ratty gets rendered totally useless and we start anew,” Thomas explained. He also builds floats for the city’s Japantown’s Cherry Blossom Festival and the Mission’s Carnivale.

Kennedy and Thomas brainstorm float concepts for what will be considered the biggest parade of the 12-year Chinese astrological cycle, the 2012 Year of the Dragon. “The dragon rules supreme because it was the all mighty symbol of the Emperor and is identified with power,” says Kennedy.

The team is kneeling on the concrete warehouse floor with scores of images and books. They’re deliberating on how to build a dragon. It’s written that a dragon has a head of a camel, horns of a deer, ears of a cow, neck of a snake, stomach of a frog, scales of a fish, eyes of a rabbit, claws of a hawk, and footprints of a tiger. But, should it be a water, fire, or earth dragon? One built for kings or for the people? And that, for Thomas and Kennedy is a real air bender.

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Loyal and True - Year 4716
by Rosemary Gong

As America is embracing her ethnic diversity, the Chinese New Year celebration is becoming as common as St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, and Columbus Day. When the new lunar year arrives on February 16, we say goodbye to the Year of the Rooster and hello to the Year of the Dog. This means that people born on or after Chinese New Year day in 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006, 2018 and every 12 years thereafter will have an especially auspicious year.

People born in the year of the dog possess strong moral qualities and can be considered the pillars of society. Devoted to family and friends, they are also genuinely concerned about the welfare of others.  Dogs are honest, highly principled, and undyingly faithful. They have a deep sense of loyalty, passion for justice and fair play, and strong sense of duty. Dogs are most compatible with tigers, horses and other dogs. Interestingly, there are three U.S. Presidents born in the year of the dog: George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. Other famous dogs are: Alec Baldwin, Justin Bieber, Mariah Carey, Matt Damon, Queen Latifah, Madonna, Prince William, Sylvester Stallone, and Melania Trump.

This can be considered a year of the “underdog” as liberty and equality are strongly advocated by the sign of the dog. Justice and fair play can lead to major confrontations and dissent with the weaker factions emerging victorious. Major issues will arise and be addressed leading to immeasurable charitable acts and championing worthy causes. This year, be broadminded and fair. Take time to reflect on our values and what is truly important.

According to legend, a great race was held by the Earth God to establish the lunar calendar and the first 12 animals to finish would be represented. The nearly blind but speedy ox agreed to carry the rat and the cat on his back during the race to help him navigate. The ox’s team was in the lead to the finish line when the rat pushed the cat off the oxen’s back and jumped ahead to win the race. The rat was declared the race’s winner, the ox was second, and the cat never placed. It’s no wonder that cats and rats have been sworn enemies ever since.

You don’t have to be Chinese to celebrate Chinese New Year. Anyone who loves Chinese food, celebration, and red envelopes of lucky money qualifies. The Chinese pursuit of luck and happiness can be practiced by everyone since there’s no distinction among the races during this most celebrated holiday of the most populous people around the world.

This 15-day celebration can be distilled to five “f” words. Now, don’t be scared! The five facets of Chinese New Year are: Family, Friends, Food, Flowers, and Fortune. The holiday is centered on family unity with the most important requirement being the family dinner on Chinese New Year Eve to usher in the New Year.

If a family doesn’t share Chinese New Year Eve dinner, the family’s heart will grow cold.

Dinner is often served on a large round table since the circle signifies the completeness of a family. Poultry and fish are served whole as the Chinese believe that dishes served in pieces are “broken.” The most significant New Year’s dish is a monks’ vegetarian dish called “jai” because each of its ingredients connotes luck, prosperity, and longevity. And no Chinese New Year would be complete without mounds of tangerines for luck, oranges for wealth, and pomelos for prosperity.

After homes undergo a serious spring cleaning, they’re decorated with fresh colorful flowers, the most popular being quince blossoms to promote prosperity, narcissus for fortune, and peony for wealth. Red “lucky papers” with auspicious sentiments for the New Year are hung on the home’s front door and the family is outfitted in new clothes from head to toe.

Red envelopes of “lucky money” are distributed by adults to youngsters and single adults as a wish of fortune. Denominations vary based on your relationship to the child but it’s acceptable to give a dollar or the cost of a candy bar to the neighbor’s children. This stems from the old Chinese beliefs that great wealth is realized through giving, and that money wrapped in red multiplies. The Chinese also can’t resist lighting firecrackers, although they’re illegal in most cities. These sticks of “exploding bamboo” create a change in energy, deliver new beginnings, and provide protection from harm.

Chinese New Year is a time of renewal, reflection, and optimism. It’s a celebration to clear away the old and welcome the new. By looking forward with optimism, generosity, and laughter we invite good luck. And, who doesn’t need a dose of that these days?

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Gearing Up for the Dragon Boat Festival
by Rosemary Gong

Heads up! The most dangerous day of the year is approaching and it’s time to get ready. The Dragon Boat Festival, also known as Double Fifth, happens on June 18.

Long ago in old China, the fifth day of the fifth lunar month was a day filled with fear. The summer months meant the onset of infectious disease due to the hot humid weather that caused infestation and contaminated waters.

Today, as the Dragon Boat Festival moves into full swing, the anxiety has evaporated. The festival’s activities range from making joong - sticky rice packets occasionally referred to as Chinese tamales - to attending city festivals where the main event is dragon boat racing.

The festival exists in remembrance of a Chinese poet who tragically perished over 2000 years ago. On Double Fifth 221 BCE, Qu Yuan, a poet and political adviser from the Warring States period, became so distraught when his beloved Qu state fell under its rival Qin rule that he threw himself into the Miluo River. When word spread throughout the village, fishermen grabbed their paddles and jumped into their boats in an attempt to save him. They frantically paddled up and down the river, wildly splashing the fish away for a glimpse of him, but the poet was never found.

In resignation, grains of rice were thrown into the river, as an offering to the lost poet’s spirit, and also so that fish wouldn’t feed on his body. Some two hundred years later, Qu Yuan’s ghost appeared to the villagers, lamenting that the rice thrown into the river was being consumed by the greedy fish and river dragon. Not a grain was left for him. He instructed the villagers to wrap the rice in bamboo leaves and tie the bundles in string the colors of the emperor – red, black, white, blue, and yellow to serve as an amulet.

Making Joong

Today, white kitchen string is used for tying rice packets referred to as joong (zongzi in Mandarin) but the practice still requires planning, preparation and a small, efficient crew to fold and assemble them. Joong is sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves and there are two types. The “salty” version consists of sticky rice, Chinese sausage, a slice of salted or marinated pork, dried shrimp, salted egg yolk, peanuts, and chestnuts. The sweet rice version is gooey, gelatinous, and the color of a yellow river. It’s often filled with black bean paste and is served with white granulated sugar for dipping to satisfy the sweet tooth. The process of making joong can take 3-4 days. But once all the ingredients are prepped, mothers, daughters, aunties and nieces unite to assemble, fold, wrap and boil these tasty Chinese treats. For those who are less inclined for such a culinary adventure, joong are available for purchase year-round in many Chinese bakeries and dim sum delis.

Racing Dragon Boats

As a reenactment to the fishermen who raced out in their boats in an attempt to save Qu Yuan, dragon boat festivals and races are held throughout the world. Teams of dragon boat racers gather to the water’s edge for a splash of competition, with the season from February to October.

Whether racer or spectator, one can’t help but catch the spirit of an international dragon boat festival’s opening ceremonies when the teams’ boats are being assembled. Taoist priests wearing robes and headpieces perform rites to bless the colorful boats with incense and firecrackers. Team members assemble their boats by attaching the vibrantly painted dragon heads at the bow and the tail at the stern. Once the “heart” of the boat – the drum - is perched in position at the front of the boat, it’s ready for competition.

Teams race in 50 foot long teak or fiberglass dragon boats that typically carry a crew of 20 paddlers, a drummer and a steersperson who barks commands to hold steady or surge forward. The boat’s drummer, who sits at the drum facing the crew, establishes the rhythmic beat to unify and inspire the paddlers. The two strokes in the front set the cadence to fire up the muscles of the crew. A typical course spans 500 to 1,300 meters, but unfamiliar waters and unfavorable weather can make the relatively short journey unpredictable.

The governing body for the sport of dragon boat racing is the International Dragon Boat Federation. IDBF is the sponsor of the World Club Crew Championships, featuring the world’s best clubs held in even-numbered years; and the World Dragon Boat Championships, consisting of national teams in odd numbered years. The venues for these best-of-class events rotate each year and have been held in metropolitan centers such as Hong Kong, Nottingham, Auckland, Vancouver, Rome, Cape Town and Yueyang, China, which is considered the birthplace of the sport.

Through the coordinated efforts of globally-based dragon boat federations and associations, teams compete at qualifying dragon boat sporting events for a chance to race in the world championships. Dragon boat racing is a fast-growing sport beginning to receive worldwide recognition.

On a local level, dragon boat racing is an easily accessible recreational and competitive sport, requiring little training or equipment beyond a dragon boat, drum and paddles. Varying levels of teams – novice, competitive, men’s, women’s, coed, senior, youth - stipulate no restrictions to age, sex, or level of competency. The ability to swim is considered advantageous, and splashing is required.

The two largest dragon boat races in North America are held in Canada: the Vancouver Alcan Dragon Boat Festival and Toronto’s International Dragon Boat Race Festival. An estimated 200 teams compete at these qualifying races for the year’s premier competition sponsored by the IDBF. Other widely attended dragon boat competitions are the New York City International Dragon Boat Race Festival, Portland-Kaohsiung Sister City Association Dragon Boat Races and the San Francisco International Dragon Boat Championships. There are now more than 40 dragon boat festivals and races held in cities across the U.S.

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Chinese Full Moon Fest
by Rosemary Gong

Ok, I admit it. I hold my breath and make a small wish every time I drive through a tunnel. I also make small wishes on shooting stars and on a full moon – any full moon. As for big wishes, those I dare not verbalize, they’re reserved for the mid-autumn moon. It’s the moon that never fails to steal my breath away. It’s the moon that’s coming to a sky nearest you on September 24.

The Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, is when the earth and moon are closest in proximity, which explains the illusion that the autumn moon is at arm’s length. Casually referred to as the Moon Festival, it was a celebration for a successful harvest in the old agrarian society. But today the holiday centers on reunion, family unity, and giving thanks around the dinner table. With myth, history, family, food, and friends, the Mid-Autumn Festival has all the ingredients to awaken the senses and taste buds.

For me, one of the key attractions for a family gathering is a hearty meal and the Mid-Autumn Festival dinner never fails to satiate my body and spirit. Families dine banquet style either at home or in a restaurant. Dinner entrées include family favorites that typically total five, seven, or nine dishes - the yang numbers the Chinese consider lucky.

One of the most popular Moon Festival foods is taro. This potato-like starchy vegetable was first discovered under the mid-autumn moon by the Ming dynasty’s army and it’s credited with saving many lives from starvation while the soldiers were defending China’s coastline. My mom’s favorite taro dish is stewed duck with taro slices from San Francisco’s Great Eastern Restaurant. It’s rich, hearty comfort food that comes in a sauce worthy of drowning your steamed rice in.

The Cantonese also enjoy sautéed snails as a Moon Festival dinner course. These tasty morsels established peace among two neighboring Guangdong Province farmers who were incensed with one another over these common garden pests. Plagued with multiplying snails, each farmer attempted to exterminate them by dumping the problem on to each other’s property. It took the ingenuity of a Qing dynasty magistrate to settle the dispute by serving them to the unsuspecting farmers during the Mid-Autumn Festival dinner. The mollusks were a culinary hit. Thereafter, snails became a regional favorite - and a treasured commodity.

Remember to pace yourself during dinner and leave room for dessert. A main event of the evening is sharing moon cakes under the moonlight. Moon cakes symbolize heavenly blessings of longevity and good health, and their roundness means completion and unity. During the mid-autumn season, moon cakes are ubiquitous since they are gifted to family, friends, and business associates, like a holiday fruitcake - but the similarity ends there.

Moon cakes contain fillings of sweet black or brown bean pastes, lotus seed, sugared melon, or dried fruit, nuts, and seeds. The molasses-colored pastry crust is imprinted with special wooden molds depicting decorative designs of flowers or folktale characters such as the Jade Rabbit or the Moon Goddess. Moon cakes are purchased with or without egg yolks baked in the center. They can be ordered in single, double, or triple yolk varieties. Egg yolks connote the moon’s roundness and the family’s completeness. The egg’s saltiness is a nice complement to the sweet paste but it can be considered an acquired taste for westerners. When giving moon cakes as gifts, give them with one yolk – or more if you want to make an impression. Moon cakes are typically packaged in boxes of four and are available in Chinese bakeries and Asian markets.

While moon cake tasting, it’s fitting to remember the historic role moon cakes played when Han leader Liu Fu Tong hid secret messages inside the sweet pastries during the Mid-Autumn Festival. The moon cake messages organized the rebels’ allies and helped overthrow the Mongolian Yuan dynasty which led to the era of the Ming dynasty in 1368. Thus, moon cakes could be considered a distant cousin to the Chinese-American invention of message filled fortune cookies.

The evening’s dessert is taken al fresco – or near the window, should weather not permit. Moon cakes are stacked into a pyramid of thirteen – representing happiness all year round – as there are 13 months to a lunar year. Other symbolic items served include apples for peace, pomegranates for fertility, peanuts for long life, and other round shaped fruits such as Asian pears, grapes, persimmons, and melon. Hot tea is a given.

Decorate the dessert table with gourds to connote long-lasting togetherness. Paper lanterns in the shapes of butterflies, fish, birds, and horses are also hung for the outdoor festivities. Horses are especially auspicious because of the old Chinese saying that the moon travels at the speed of the horse. Lanterns are also available in shapes of toys for the kids such as airplanes, rockets, and popular cartoon characters.

When gazing at the moon, silent wishes are made to the mythological Moon Goddess – Chang E. Known as Chang-O or Shiang-O in Cantonese, she achieved heavenly status after drinking the elixir of immortality. The potion originally belonged to her husband, Hou Yi, the Divine Archer, who received it as a heavenly reward for saving earth by successfully shooting down nine threatening suns and leaving one to nourish the planet. He hid the luminescent elixir away for safekeeping but when his wife discovered it, she couldn’t resist. Instantaneously Chang-E grew weightless and floated out of their palace windows and beyond Hou Yi’s grasp. Upon arriving on the moon, Chang-E grew ill, and coughed up the elixir. The weightless shimmering liquid transformed into a jade white rabbit, which marked the birth of the Jade Rabbit - also known as the Moon Hare, Chang-E’s constant companion. Hou Yi had no recourse but to accept his wife’s fate. Resigned, he built her a luminous celestial palace in a grove of cinnamon trees. Upon hearing of the couple’s fate, the heavenly gods were moved and compassionately ruled that Chang-E and Hou Yi be reunited once a month, on the fifteenth day of every lunar month, the full moon, forever and ever. Perhaps this is why Chinese children were told to never point at the moon in the old days. Chang-E and Hou Yi may be looking.

Under the mid-autumn moon, it’s said that families separated by distance are reunited in spirit while reflecting on the same moon at the same moment. Many overseas Chinese used the full autumn moon to spiritually reconnect with far-flung family members by knowing that they were gazing at the very same moon. It’s a moment of remembrance, thanksgiving and, lest not forget, wishing.

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