Chinese New Year: Honoring history

The Chinese Chamber of Commerce, the force behind San Francisco’s internationally known Chinese New Year Festival and Parade, usually sponsors one float each year with a colorful theme like Chinese opera masks.

This year, the chamber’s general consultant Rose Pak — infamous for providing interesting commentary during the parade — mentioned that 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the first Chinese workers building the American transcontinental railroad. The idea to have a float to commemorate their labor started going around, and chamber members got fully on board.

But the history of Chinese workers’ contribution to linking the east with the west is a dark one. Construction of the route east from Sacramento began in 1863. Two years later, in 1865, Chinese were hired at about $27 per month to do the dangerous work of laying tracks over the Sierra Nevada, which included lighting fuses to blast tunnels, often losing their lives in the process.

David Thomas, 67, master float builder for the parade, came up with several sketches for the float and even proposed bringing in a full-size train.

The chamber “didn't want just a plain old boxcar train,” said parade and festival director Harlan Wong.

“Basically, we just wanted something to represent the Chinese community and also wanted to have a festive image,” he said.

Chamber members chose a cartoon-style float.

The sketch illustrated a classic front car representing the Chinese force behind the railroad, a second teapot car embodying Chinese men’s dreams for a brighter future with their families, a third money car showcasing the riches their work brought to the U.S. and a final car in the shape of a pagoda symbolizing a guiding light much like the Statue of Liberty.

Beneath the railroad tracks, Thomas placed a herd of sheep personifying the bounties of Chinese today, in contrast to their poorly fed railroad worker ancestors.

“I made the train happy,” Thomas said with a laugh. “Although the work was extremely hard for them as laborers, the happy little train is meant to signify the richness that they brought to this country both in heritage and economic gain.”

Two weeks ago at a Pier 54 warehouse, the railroad float was the only one for the parade that Thomas’ parade float and prop-building company, East West, was starting. The float base — 10 feet tall, 8 feet wide and 30 feet long with a wave shape spanning that length — was still bare and solid white.

“It will be painted over many times,” said Stephanie Mufson, 35, manager and director for East West.

In no time, Mufson started drawing outlines on wood slabs for the float and put her husband, Scott Franklin, 35, to work sanding down the edges and painting the shapes.

“I want red here and yellow up here and we’re going to do a teal here,” she said pointing to different parts of what would become the teapot car. “I kind of eyeball it and decide where it’s going to look the best.”

With veterans running the railroad train float, the hardest part may not be its production, but finding the right people to ride it in the parade on Saturday. The chamber envisions having descendants of the Chinese laborers as the honored guests, holding posters of their hard-working ancestors for the crowds to see.

Finding them “has been somewhat difficult so far,” Wong said a couple weeks prior to the parade.

Anyone with tips can contact the Chinese Historical Society at (415) 391-1188.

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