This year was meant to mark the triumphant return of Chinatown’s Lunar New Year celebrations after the in-person festivities were canceled in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, the Year of the Tiger – which signifies strength, courage, power and great change – will begin with cautious optimism.
“It’s going to be a real test. We’re all holding our breath a bit,” said Malcolm Yeung, executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center. “We don’t know what the future holds, but it could be very uncertain. We are optimistic, but very nervous.
February 1 marks the official start of the new year according to the lunar calendar, but the festive season lasts for more than a month. Families decorate their homes with flowers, symbolizing unity and prosperity, and fruits representing good luck. They buy ingredients for traditional dishes such as chicken and Peking duck and plan eight-course banquets that bring entire families together.
The festivities culminate in the parade, which this year takes place on February 19. Crowds of people will come out to follow the colorful and vibrant display of Chinese culture from its starting point at Second and Market Streets to Kearny Street and Columbus Avenue.
All this activity inevitably entails economic expenditure. About a third of all revenue in Chinatown is generated around Lunar New Year, Yeung estimates, and the parade alone draws tens of thousands of people to the neighborhood for a single night.
Nancy Lau owns AsiaStar Fantasy on Grant Avenue, a boutique that sells iconic Chinese cultural products such as calligraphy sets, decorations, greeting cards and the traditional red envelopes filled with cash and given to members of the family and respected friends to signal good fortune.
She says her store wouldn’t survive if it wasn’t for the period around the Lunar New Year, but the past two holidays have been cut short by the pandemic. Chinatown saw a significant drop in visitor numbers and activity long before shelter-in-place orders hit in March 2020 as COVID-19 raged overseas.
“I see a lot more foot traffic than I did last year, but normally my income would be double in January and February than it is in a normal month,” she said.
Businesses that depend on their ability to bring people together indoors continue to be impacted almost as badly as they were at the worst of the pandemic.
Reservations for the eight-course Lunar New Year menu at Far East Cafe, a historic banquet hall in Chinatown, were booked nearly two years in advance. Bill and Kathy Lee, the father-daughter duo who run the restaurant, were serving a full house of hundreds of people every night over the holidays.
This year, the rise of omicron forced them to return to a take-out-only menu. The Lees have also reduced the restaurant’s hours, opening six days a week instead of seven, and going for hours without even a single customer walking through the door on some days.
“It’s very depressing. It is very sad that we cannot organize these events,” said Kathy Lee. “What else can we do and what other options do we have? We hoped that with the new year we would be able to move forward and make it a time of celebration.
Lunar New Year festivities are not an exercise in frivolous spending. They are essential to Chinese culture as a chance to come together in community, to express gratitude for the collective blessings of the previous year, and to ask for renewal and good luck in the coming year.
“I think we need it as a community, and we need it almost on a spiritual level,” Yeung said. “It’s that singular time of year when we’re literally in community with each other physically, emotionally and culturally, and not taking full advantage of that for the past two years has been really difficult.”
San Francisco’s Lunar New Year celebrations are also rooted in Chinatown’s efforts to introduce its cultural customs and traditions to others to avoid persecution and discrimination. This reminder is particularly poignant in the context of the pandemic when people have blamed the Chinese for COVID-19, leading to an increase in xenophobic rhetoric and behavior.
The city hosted the nation’s first recorded Lunar New Year celebration in 1851, according to Smithsonian Institute records. The Gold Rush era brought a massive influx of people to California, including many Chinese migrants. But there was a backlash in response to the changing population, and then-Governor John Bigler proposed policies to stem the tide.
According to the story, Norman Assing, himself a Chinese immigrant who would later become a prominent member of the Chinese community in San Francisco’s Chinatown, hosted a feast for “cops and ladies” to show off his culture. .
He also wrote a letter to the governor espousing the virtues of Chinese immigration and criticizing its policies as antithetical to the democracy Bigler said he was trying to protect: “You argue that this is a republic of a peculiar race – that the Constitution of the United States admits asylum only to the pale face. This proposition is false in the extreme, and you know it. The declaration of your independence and all acts of your government, your people and your history are all against you.
Lunar New Year grew from there, and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce began running the event in 1958, helping it become the world-renowned cultural experience it is today.
Although this year’s Jubilee continues to be tempered by COVID-19, it remains a sacred moment for the Chinese community, friends and family as much this year as any other.
“We are hard working people. Throughout the year, we expect a great return on all the hard work we do,” Lau said. “I’m not just talking about big profits or big money. Unity, prosperity and peace are what we all pray for. And now, good health, good health, good health.