Lunar New Year illuminates Millbrae

Pioneering the most expansive Lunar New Year celebration on the Peninsula seemed like a pipe dream for Joanna Ma when she moved to the mostly white city of Millbrae 20 years ago.

Asian students like her two kids in Green Hills Elementary School were a distinct minority at the time, and there were certainly no massive parades in the city celebrating their cultural heritage, she recalled.

But that’s not the case anymore, thanks in large part to Ma. She joined the school’s Parent-Teacher Association, became president and began promoting an “international week” of cultural celebrations.

Since then, the Asian community has boomed in the tiny city to about one-fourth of the total population, City Manager Ralph Jaeck said. Asians also now make up close to 40 percent of its elementary school district and outnumber white students, according to Kidsdata.org.

At no time is the city’s growing Asian population and influence on the rest of the Peninsula more evident than during its Lunar New Year celebration, masterminded by Ma and fellow resident Marion Kong. About 8,000 people from San Francisco to San Jose — twice as many as last year — are expected to pack the city of 22,000 on Saturday and Sunday for the Year of the Rat celebration, the third time Millbrae will hold the Lunar New Year celebration.

Kong, who arrived in Millbrae around the same time as Ma, launched the festivities because San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland hosted the closest spacious Lunar New Year celebrations.

“Now, in San Mateo County, the Asian community has a place to go to experience the Lunar New Year and get to know other people,” Kong said.

The event’s popularity has reached so far that organizers are also promoting the festivities in the South Bay this year.

“The Asian [population] is getting more integrated into the community, not just in Millbrae but on the entire Peninsula,” said Paul Seto, Millbrae’s first Asian councilmember. The entire Millbrae City Council, school board and state Sen. Leland Yee will take part this weekend.

The group hopes their efforts have set a precedent for other ethnic groups on the Peninsula to promote their heritage. In Millbrae, at least, a Japanese Cherry Blossom festival was launched shortly after the success of the first Lunar New Year event.

Elsewhere on the Peninsula, Foster City held a free, four-hour Lunar New Year celebration Sunday. A Chinese New Year Performance will be held Thursday at the Bayside Performing Arts Center in San Mateo.

mrosenberg@examiner.com

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