William Gee, bleachers coordinator and longtime volunteer for San Francisco’s more than 100-year-old Chinatown New Year festivities, calls 2018 a notable year because Michelle Yeoh, a major movie star, was the first celebrity grand marshal in the parade’s long history.
But this year, tradition rules again: Mayor London Breed has the honor in Southwest Airlines’ Chinese New Year Festival and Parade.
On Feb. 23, she’ll be among the 4,500 people appearing in the 180-unit procession during Chinese Chamber of Commerce-sponsored Year of the Pig (Lunar Year 4717) celebrations in The City.
Observances are already in progress, though, with the Chinese New Year Flower Market Fair on Grant Avenue in Chinatown this weekend.
“It’s a place where families shop for items to prepare their homes for the holiday,” says Gee, who, through the years, inherited the job of the month-long festival’s public relations representative after starting as a volunteer for the street fair in the mid-1990s.
The parade dates back to the Gold Rush era, when Chinese workers (in mines or on the railroad) carried flags, lanterns, drums and firecrackers as they marched down what today are Grant Avenue and Kearny Street.
“The original intention was for cultural inclusiveness, to share the celebration with people who didn’t understand their culture,” says Gee, who adds that the mission remains the same in the 21st century.
With school marching bands, lion dance groups, about 20 sponsored floats, cultural groups, community service groups, political leaders and corporate sponsors among the contingents, the parade “represents of mix of everything and everyone in the community,” says Gee.
The parade, which has been directed by San Francisco’s Chinese Chamber of Commerce since 1958, became an evening event that year, so it wouldn’t compete with the Miss Chinatown USA pageant in the afternoon. In the mid 1970s, it moved from Grant Avenue to wider streets to accommodate the growing crowds. Police estimate 1 million spectators turn out each year.
Gee says that “anywhere behind the barricades along the route is a great place to watch” and recommends arriving early for the best sight lines or purchasing a ticket for bleacher seating toward the end of the 1.3 mile route.
Total viewership since KTVU Channel 2 began televising the parade in 1987 — around the time the flower market and community fairs were added to the festivities — is around 3 million.
With a budget of $1 million, the festival and parade rely on corporate contributions (Southwest became the title sponsor 25 years ago and T-Mobile is a presenting sponsor this year), and even more significantly on thousands of people who donate their time to set up and work at the varied events.
“We’re thankful for a lot of volunteer help; we want to continue the tradition,” says Gee.
Another long tradition is that the parade goes on, rain or shine: “We haven’t canceled yet and we don’t plan to this year,” says Gee.
Born in the Year of the Pig: The ancient Chinese New Year is a time of reunion and thanksgiving. Also called Lunar New Year, its festivities begin with the new moon and end 15 days later. According to legend, the Lord Buddha called animals to come to him before he departed earth; 12 came. He named a year after each: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Hare, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig, the last in the Chinese Zodiac. In Chinese astrology, people take on the characteristics of the animal that rules the year of their birth. The Pig is associated with being artistic, refined, intuitive, intelligent and loyal, but also quick-tempered.