This year was supposed to mark the triumphant return of Chinatown’s Lunar New Year celebrations after 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 big changes — will begin with cautious optimism.
“It is going to be a real test. We are all kind of holding our breath a little bit,” said Malcolm Yeung, executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center. “We don’t know what the future could bring, but it could be very uncertain. We are optimistic, but very nervous.”
Feb. 1 marks the official beginning of the new year according to the lunar calendar, but the holiday season lasts for over a month. Families decorate their homes with flowers, symbolizing togetherness and prosperity, and fruits representing good luck. They purchase ingredients for traditional dishes such as chicken and Peking duck and schedule eight-course banquet meals that bring entire families together.
Festivities culminate with the parade, which this year takes place Feb. 19. Droves of people will come out to follow the colorful, vibrant display of Chinese culture from its starting point at Second and Market streets to Kearny Street and Columbus Avenue.
All this activity inevitably leads to economic spending. Roughly one-third of all of Chinatown’s revenues are earned around the Lunar New Year, Yeung estimates, and the parade alone brings tens of thousands of people into the neighborhood for a single night.
Nancy Lau owns AsiaStar Fantasy on Grant Avenue, a shop that sells iconic Chinese cultural goods such as calligraphy sets, decorations, greeting cards and the traditional red envelopes that are stuffed with money and given to family members and respected friends to signal good fortune.
She says her store would not survive if not for the period around Lunar New Year, but the last two holidays have been curtailed by the pandemic. Chinatown saw a significant drop-off in visitors and activity well before shelter-in-place orders hit in March 2020 as COVID-19 raged overseas.
“I see a lot more foot traffic than last year, but normally my revenue would be double in January and February than what it is in a normal month,” she said.
Businesses that hinge on their ability to bring people together indoors continue to be hurt almost as badly as they were in the worst of the pandemic.
Reservations for the eight-course Lunar New Year menu at Far East Cafe, a storied Chinatown banquet hall, used to be booked nearly two years in advance. Bill and Kathy Lee, the father-daughter duo who run the restaurant, would serve a full house of hundreds of people every night around the holiday.
This year, the omicron surge has forced them to revert back to a takeout-only menu. The Lees have also cut the restaurant’s hours, operating six days a week instead of seven, and go for hours without having even a single customer walk into the door some days.
“It’s very depressing. It’s very sad that we cannot host these events,” said Kathy Lee. “What else can be done, and what other options do we have? We were hoping that with the new year we would be able to move forward and make this a time to celebrate.”
Lunar New Year festivities aren’t an exercise in frivolous spending. They’re essential to Chinese culture as a chance to come together in community, express gratitude for the collective blessings of the year prior and ask for renewal and good luck in the year to come.
“I think we as a community need this, and we need it almost on a spiritual level,” Yeung said. “It is that singular moment in the year when we are literally in community with each other physically, emotionally and culturally, and not having the full kind of benefit from that in the last two years has been really hard.”
San Francisco’s Lunar New Year celebrations are also rooted in Chinatown’s efforts to introduce its cultural customs and traditions to others to stave off persecution and discrimination. That reminder is particularly poignant against the pandemic backdrop when people blamed the Chinese for COVID-19, leading to an uptick in xenophobic rhetoric and behavior.
The City hosted the first recorded Lunar New Year celebration in the country in 1851, according to records at the Smithsonian Institute. 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.
As the story goes, Norman Assing, himself a Chinese immigrant who would later become a leading member of San Francisco’s Chinatown community, hosted a feast for “policemen and ladies” as a way to display the merits of his culture.
He also wrote a letter to the governor espousing the virtues of Chinese immigration and criticizing his policies as antithetical to the democracy Bigler said he was trying to protect: “You argue that this is a republic of a particular race —that the Constitution of the United States admits of no asylum to any other than the pale face. This proposition is false in the extreme, and you know it. The declaration of your independence, and all the 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 leading the event in 1958, helping it become the world-renowned cultural experience it is today.
Though this year’s jubilee will continue to be tempered by COVID-19, it remains a sacred point in time for the Chinese community and their friends and family as much this year as any other.
“We are hardworking people. For the whole year we wait for a big return on all the hard work that we do,” Lau said. “I’m not talking just about big profits or a lot of money. Togetherness, prosperity and peace are what we are all praying for. And right now, good health, good health, good health.”