The pop of firecrackers, the bang of drums and the crunch of fallen lettuce underfoot are all familiar winter sounds to San Franciscans. Live here for even just a few years, and the delightful leaping lions become an expected annual sight during the Lunar New Year in February.
But I’ve come to understand that experience is a shallow one. For the 35 percent of San Franciscans who are Asian, a majority of whom are Chinese, honoring the new year is not just about the parade, or even just one day.
Even as someone who grew up in San Francisco, I’ve never participated in one important tradition during the festival celebration: the family reunion dinner, which is usually held New Year’s Eve. It’s been a lifelong regret.
So this year, I put out the call to my contacts in Chinatown. Would some brave family let this wacky, red-haired Latino crash their annual feast?
The Pang family of the Portola neighborhood said yes.
And what I found with that kind, generous family was a lot of love, marked by an all-too-common generational political divide navigated through mutual respect.
Diana Pang, a member of the Rose Pak Democratic Club, got the buy-in from her mom, dad, brother, and most importantly, “grandma Wu-Tang Pang.” (Pang’s nickname, folks, not mine!). “ I was literally reading your column” when she got the call from a fellow club member about it, she wrote to me in an email, adding “I took it as a sign.”
But before I could even say “gong hay fat choy,” I was cautioned that dinner conversation may include some fireworks. Diana, a progressive Democrat, is not always in agreement with her moderate-leaning father about politics, I was told.
I was excited to experience the tradition, but nervous. Would this be like Thanksgiving, where I should just clam up and avoid all political talk? I’m a political prognosticator for a reason — zipping my lip isn’t exactly my strong suit.
Well, nothing to do but rush in head-long. To be a gracious guest, Pang recommended I bring oranges and grapes, which numerous interweb sources described as “good fortune fruit.” Tangerines, too. Friday night I hoofed in the rain to the Pang residence carrying an armful of all-of-the-above, fresh from La Loma #10 on San Bruno Avenue.
Steven Pang, Diana’s younger brother, answered the door and politely asked me to kick off my kicks. “Did you know,” he started, that we actually went to the same high school? Turns out we had intersected briefly at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts. Who knew! Diana and I even attended the same junior high, Marina Middle School, albeit a few years apart.
I immediately felt at home; having the freedom to wriggle my toes in my Nintendo socks probably helped. The family patriarch, Patrick Pang, warmly shook my hand and led me downstairs to his home’s in-law apartment.
Connie Pang, Patrick’s wife and Diana and Steven’s mother, busily prepped our meal in the kitchen as we walked through. Oranges, pomelos and other fruit were decoratively piled on a bowl in the dining room, as per tradition. Sitting at the dinner table, Patrick passed me red wine. “Help yourself,” he said.
Before I had arrived, the room was prepared for the important meal. Posed black-and-white photos of family ancestors, no longer living, graced the walls. A shrine sat in the corner with incense, decorative plates and a Buddha statuette.
Our dinner was brought to the family altar first, the “bai sun” ancestral worship.
“Good greetings, good words,” Patrick explained. “We pay tribute to the Gods and ancestors.”
Other traditions were observed as well: the house was cleaned prior to sweep away bad luck, for instance. Red is a good luck color, which I brought in abundance on the top of my noggin.
Grandma Pang — who, by the way, is a spry 100 years old — sat at the dining room table with Big Auntie Pang. I thanked them all for allowing me to join their dinner.
It was halfway through our traditional meal when the political conflict began to emerge.
As Diana urged me to try more of a delicious vegetable dish — mushrooms with baby corn and noodles — Patrick peppered me with questions about marijuana. Should San Francisco allow pot shops so close to where families live? This has caused a huge outcry in some parts of San Francisco’s Chinese community, from the Sunset District to Chinatown, if you recall, dear readers.
Diana didn’t seem convinced cannabis was harmful. But this was one place, she said, where she and the Rose Pak Democratic Club felt they shouldn’t push. Instead, just like at the traditional dinner we were enjoying, they let their elders lead the way and respected their stances.
That doesn’t mean Diana isn’t a radical. She experienced a political awakening at Thurgood Marshall Academic High School, where kids of all ethnicities mixed and combusted. “We had incredible teachers who broke it down for me,” she said. She also went to youth programs at the Chinatown Community Development Center, where a young, soon-to-be-politician helped educate teenage minds: Jane Kim.
Patrick framed his daughter’s progressivism in a different way, pointing to cultural mores. “It comes from American education!” he said.
I reached for another serving of a traditional new year staple, fish, which Connie had cooked to be as deliciously soft as could be, while Patrick and Diana explained their differences.
Patrick is a fan of London Breed, who he backed for mayor. Diana was Jane all the way. A homeowner, Patrick often doesn’t back tenants measures, like the recent Proposition F which will see the city provide attorneys to tenants facing eviction. He also complains that The City raises its taxes on the backs of homeowners — like himself — far too often.
“No, no, no, no, no!” he told me. He came to the United States with $100 in his pocket, and said he should be able to hold on to more of his earnings.
Oh yeah, and Patrick is a big fan of Josephine Zhao, the controversial former school board candidate who caught some heat in the English news media for her former opposition to transgender bathroom access.
But far from a point of conflict, to Diana, these disagreements are an education.
Her own political allies may not have liked Zhao, but by listening to her father, she hears the plight of a homeowner who The City hasn’t helped. Less known about Zhao is how she became so popular in the first place: She started a popular chat room to offer landlord and homeowner advice to Cantonese speakers, a service many felt was missing.
And respect is a two-way street, as Patrick has budged for his daughter, too. “He let me put up a Jane Kim poster” during the mayor’s race, she said.
I poured myself another cup of tea as her father explained how he thinks the Chinese community could learn from the LGBT community’s growth as a political force.
“Step by step, they get power,” he said. Diana pointed out that state Senator Scott Wiener was an example of that. “Scott Wiener is gay?!” Patrick asked, surprised. “OK, wow!”
In many ways, Diana said, the conversation with her father is a lot like the one between the Rose Pak Democratic Club, which is led by a younger generation, and the community it represents. A push and pull between generational attitudes, guided by a reverence for their elders.
Recalling some far-flung members of my own family on the East Coast, truly conservative-leaning Bostonians who have asked me some odd political questions, I asked her how she maintains respectful dialogue.
Her answer was easy: The Tiananmen Square protests.
In 1989, student-led protests in China’s Tiananmen square gained national attention, as people there fought for freedom of speech and democracy. At the height of the protests, nearly a million people crowded the square until on June 4, when the unthinkable happened: the Chinese Communist Party ordered 200,000 soldiers in armored tanks to suppress the protest. The resulting Tiananmen Square Massacre’s death toll is often debated as running somewhere between hundreds and thousands.
Every night on TV, Diana and her brother Steven would listen to a song, the Goddess of Democracy, named for a statue in Tiananmen Square: “Blindfolding us you expect us to see nothing,” the song goes, “plugging our ears, you want us to hear nothing. Yet, the truth is in our heart, the pain is in the chest.”
Diana’s earliest memories were shaped by a moment of solidarity, of support, and a call for peace and by her father Patrick, who marched down Geary Boulevard to the Chinese Consulate, Diana alongside him.
“I was just a kid,” she said. But since that day, “I was really proud to be his daughter.”
And no matter how far apart father and daughter are in their politics, that solidarity carries through the decades, a good luck spirit felt warmly during Lunar New Year’s time of reunion.
On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.