Hundreds of people who gathered at Chinatown’s Portsmouth Square Friday to usher in a new year also witnessed the unveiling of a brand new Golden Dragon — a 288-foot structure used in ceremonial dance that has long been a symbol of the annual festivities.
“This one is the longest dragon that we’ve ever had,” said Harlon Wong, Director of the Chinese New Year Parade, while standing in front of a bright yellow, orange and green dragon replica that measured 288 feet from head to toe.
The new dragon is some 50 feet longer than the dragon used in the Chinese New Year parade over the last nine years.
That dragon has finally been carried into retirement, according to Wong, who called this year’s ceremony a “once in a decade event” as it included a rare “eye-dotting” ritual — an initiation ceremony that symbolizes the spirit of the dragon coming to life before it is carried through the streets on poles held by dancers.
“This is a brand new dragon and before we utilize it, the whole point is that there is a ritual where you awaken it,” said Noreen Wong, a longtime volunteer of the festival and parade for the San Francisco-based Chinese Chamber of Commerce, which organized Friday’s ceremony.
Wong said that the last time the Chinese Chamber of Commerce’s festival committee acquired a new dragon was in 2009. “This is the one that we will use in the finale of the Chinese New Year Parade.”
Adorned with colorful images and materials representing different animals, construction of the new dragon, called “Gum Lung,” spanned some six months, according to Kitman Chan, President of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce.
The honor of dotting the dragon’s eye was given to San Francisco’s current Mayor Mark Farrell and former Mayor Willie Brown.
“This is our version of China,” Brown said. “The culture and every aspect of what happens in the Chinese community in San Francisco reveals itself so dramatically on the day and time we celebrate the New Year.”
City leaders including Board of Supervisors President London Breed and Supervisor Jane Kim, both of whom are running for mayor in the June election came dressed in red, a sign of prosperity. They joined a diverse crowd of an estimated 500 participants for the celebration, which marked the beginning of the Year of the Dog according to the Chinese lunar calendar.
Many of those attending said that they had come to connect with their culture and build community.
“I wanted to introduce my two grandkids to Chinese culture and have them come see this new dragon that will be in the parade because it’s just amazing to watch,” said San Francisco native Lucy Mok. “Being American-born, this is as close to [Chinese] culture as we are going to get.”
Friday’s opening ceremony precedes the City’s Chinese New Year Parade scheduled for Feb. 24 that snakes through the heart of downtown toward Chinatown and is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of people.
The parade dates back to the 1850s, and this year marks its 60th year under the direction of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce.
Kim said that she helped to organize the yearly event in the past while working as a volunteer with the Chinatown Community Development Center.
“I used to help monitor the crowds and now I get to ride in the parade,” she said, adding that the parade “gets bigger every year.”
“This is truly an event that started in the community and has grown to become one of the biggest festivities in San Francisco,” she said.