While waiting for the parade to begin, it occurred to me that I knew very little about what we were about to see. Some curbside Iphone research yielded some interesting results. The official website for the event claims this is one of the few remaining night illuminated parades in the country. Not only is the parade and associated festival the largest celebration of Asian culture outside of Asia, it has also been named one of the top ten parades in world (by the IFEA, whoever they are…)! Well, this new information certainly bumped my expectations up a notch or two.
And for the most part, they were met. Despite waving politician after waving politician in the back of an expensive convertible being met with awkward silence or weak applause at best, the marching bands, dance troupes, and floats doubling as giant corporate advertisements held our attention for the multi-hour procession. As we are entering the year of the Wooden Horse, it was fun to see the many ways horses were incorporated into costume and float theme. But of course, the lions and dragons stole the show. How could they not, being all blinged out with their LED lights and crazy colors? Conveniently, Matt compiled very selective footage into a short video that makes the parade look like a non-stop lion and dragon extravaganza, you can watch it here.
The grand finale was “Gum Lung,” a gorgeous 268-foot Golden Dragon that rapidly flowed down the street like a lava river, propelled by a team of over a hundred members of a martial arts group at a race-pace run and tag-teaming dragon carrying duties. I got a little caught up in the moment with this particular dragon and was compelled to chase after it once it passed by us. We could barely keep up running a straight line on the crowded sidewalk, while the dragon team meandered side-to-side and sometimes doubled back on itself.
It’s also important to consider the parade in the context of its history. Like many stories in San Francisco, it roots can be traced to California Gold Rush in 1849 and the many Chinese who immigrated at that time. According to ever-reliable Wikipedia, “By the 1860s, the residents of San Francisco's Chinatown were eager to share their culture with their fellow San Francisco residents who may have been unfamiliar with (or hostile towards) it. The organizers chose to showcase their culture by using a favorite American tradition – the parade.”
Beyond the entertainment value of the parade itself, this experience opened my eyes to the significance of the fifteen-day long celebration of the Lunar New Year and the multitude of traditions and customs surrounding it. I have just scratched the surface of the fascinating intricacies of the Chinese Zodiac that goes so much deeper that just a yearly animal, which I had only a peripheral awareness of beforehand. That said, I now know that Wooden Horse years are associated with warfare and conflict as people tend to stand firm on their principles, making negotiations difficult. Hmmm, should bode well for our plans of international travel…