Lion dancers and acrobats. Firecrackers and tiny poppers. Family meals and red envelopes. The return of the flower market and that phrase granting prosperity, gung hei fat choy.
Yes, it’s the Chinese New Year. And though the parade isn’t until late February, the nearly month-long celebrations are well underway.
For the uninitiated, think Hannukah, but longer. Substitute noodles for latkes. And as I was reminded on a recent walk through Chinatown —even in San Francisco’s time of crisis of evictions and worse, Chinatown still is finding its spirit to celebrate.
On a rainy, grey, Friday in Chinatown, the Stockton street sidewalk market is already humming. Neighbors scrunch in shoulder-to-shoulder, sizing up bags of abalone, or dried mushrooms under tents along the sidewalk. Yes, shoppers usually buy their goods outside, but for the weeks before the new year, there are pop-up shops by the street.
The familiar Chinatown scent — a blend of spices, dried goods and fish — promises a scrumptious meal for many.
The outdoor shopping tradition began in 2013, as an effort to make Chinatown businesses prosper, Pius Lee, chair of the Chinatown Neighborhood Association tells me. And he repeatedly thanks Mayor Ed Lee for making it happen.
Stockton’s transformation beckons back to the markets of Hong Kong and elsewhere, he says, so Chinatown families can shop in the old ways.
“They come because of tradition,” Lee says, as we scramble through the usual throng of shoppers. Though it’s still not perfect. “Next year, I want to make sure everyone has a red tent.”
That’s for good luck. Symbolism is rife at Chinese New Year, Pius explains.
The family meal is eaten on New Year’s Eve — this year, on Feb. 7. He points out a line of black moss in a basket in one shop, and says “the name in Chinese means wild fortune vegetable, you eat it and get fortune!”
“Flavor and Fortune,” a Chinese food publication, says scallions and lettuce are symbols of spring, while oranges and tangerines symbolize abundant happiness, string beans mean longevity, and uncut noodles symbolize long life.
Symbols are the theme as Pius continues his tour along the market, picking up a pack of lai see, red envelopes familiar to anyone who’s grown up in San Francisco. Usually someone more senior packs cash in, and gives to someone more junior — though that’s not necessarily children.
Not because of age, perhaps, but stature, Pius is respected by many in the neighborhood. As we walk, people stop him to say hello. One set of merchants excitedly beckons him in Cantonese to stop “an outsider” from setting up shop in the outdoor market in their space.
Pius handles these requests with ease.
Not all are so grave. Kevin Ting, at the Tan Tan Trading Co., points out his batch of firecracker flowers to Pius, who smiles in approval.
Pius gravitates toward the bamboo, however, because it’s “rich with honor,” he says.
For me, Chinese New Year is rich with memories, I tell him. With the Unsinkable Sherman (elementary school) Sharks, I’d yearly march with the parade — one year, dressed as a rat replete with whiskers.
My fondest childhood memories are of sitting in awe of the springing and glittering lions, batting their eyelashes and spewing lettuce. For me, sounds of the lion dancers’ drums recall San Francisco as much as the foghorn.
Of course, as children we all got lai see, but I was always envious of my classmates who tasted traditional New Year dishes. Years later, the neighborhood is still a bustle about this time.
And as we walk I realize, as San Francisco changes — and wrestles with evictions, with the tech newcomers, and a loss of identity — Chinatown stays much the same.
It’s not impervious, of course. Pius laments the loss of five or more restaurants in the neighborhood this year. He points out a need for more housing, even in Chinatown, where rents are somewhat lower than elsewhere in The City.
But as we walk back up Stockton toward Clay, shoppers again crowd the market. Pius launches back into lessons about Chinese New Year traditions. We forget those worries.
The evictions and struggle aren’t gone, but for a short time, we celebrate the year to come.
Gung hei fat choi, and Sun nin fai lok — Wishing you prosperity and health, and a happy new year.
Chinese New Year Events:
Chinese New Year Flower Fair
9 a.m. to 6 p.m., free
Grant Avenue from Clay Street to Broadway; Pacific Avenue from Kearny to Stockton Street
Beginning the weekend before the Lunar New Year holiday, the event offers families the opportunity to purchase traditional holiday plants, flowers and fruits; entertainment and a children’s area round out the activities.
Lunar New Year Celebration
10 a.m. to 4 p.m., $10-$15; free for ages 12 and under
Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., S.F.
The museum offers special events, family-friendly activities and unique merchandise to ring in the Year of the Monkey.
10 a.m. to 4 p.m., free
SF Chinese Chamber of Commerce/Southwest Airlines®
Betty Ann Ong Chinese Recreation Center, Mason and Washington streets
The San Francisco Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Southwest Airlines sponsor the 23rd annual six-game, family event with participation from boys and girls from the greater Chinatown-North Beach community and San Francisco middle schools.
S.F. Symphony Chinese New Year
2 p.m. reception, 3 p.m. concert, 5 p.m. dinner; $30-$74 for concert; $375 and up for dinner
Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
www.sfsymphony.org, (415) 503-5500 for dinner information
Mei-Ann Chen conducts the orchestra in a holiday program with guest soloists, pipa player Wu Man and soprano Pureum Jo; festivities also include a pre-performance reception and post-show Imperial Dinner.
Miss Chinatown USA Pageant
7 p.m., $30-$65
Palace of Fine Arts Theater. 3301 Lyon St.
www.chineseparade.com/calendar.asp, (415) 397-3232, (415) 397-8988
Young women from throughout the United States come to The City to compete in the annual pageant.
Miss Chinatown USA Coronation Ball
6 p.m. cocktails, 7 p.m. dinner, 8:30 p.m. dancing, $150 per person
Hilton San Francisco Union Square, 333 O’Farrell St.
Seating available in tables of 10; call (415) 982-3071
The newly selected Miss Chinatown USA and her court appear at the annual Caesars Entertainment-sponsored black tie gala and civic event.
Chinatown Community Street Fair
10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, free
Grant Avenue from Clay Street to Broadway; Pacific Avenue from Kearny to Stockton street
Lantern and kite making, calligraphy, fine arts demonstrations, folk dance, puppet shows, as well as traditional and modern entertainment on the main stage, make up the festivities.
CCHP/Chinatown YMCA Chinese New Year Run
7 p.m. registration, 8 p.m. start, $43
Begins at Sacramento Street and Grant Avenue
(415) 576-9622, www.ymcasf.org/Chinatown
The 38th annual 5K/10K Run/Walk, presented by the San Francisco SF Chinese Chamber of Commerce, winds its its way through Chinatown, North Beach, The Embarcadero and downtown and finishes on Kearny between California and Sacramento streets; registration includes a T-shirt and finish line goodies for all runners as well as prizes for top winners in each age group.