A sign for the Year of the Ox hangs at the corner of Stockton and Clay streets in Chinatown during a subdued holiday season. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

A sign for the Year of the Ox hangs at the corner of Stockton and Clay streets in Chinatown during a subdued holiday season. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Year of the Ox meets the year of Covid

Lunar New Year traditions change and adapt to difficult times

With San Francisco’s historic, crowd-gathering Chinese New Year Parade on hold in 2021 due in to public health concerns, it’s clear that the pandemic has had a significant impact on how Chinatown residents and businesses are celebrating 4719, the Year of the Ox, which starts Feb. 12.

“The number of people has drastically declined — both locals and tourists. It’s so heartbreaking to see the boarded-up storefronts,” said Pam Wong, interim executive director of the Chinese Historical Society of America.

Yet this year’s downturn isn’t the first time the Lunar New Year came amid difficult times. Wong said Chinatown maintained its spirit during the Great Depression and the Second Sino-Japanese War, when people adapted how they observed the holiday by keeping in mind the bigger picture.

“I came across this article [from the 1930s] that said, ‘Save your money, don’t spend it on firecrackers this year, but donate it to the war effort,’” Wong said. “We need to celebrate, but we don’t need to celebrate so elaborately or force something that comes and goes within seconds. Make your investment for the long haul.”

While Asians may not be gathering this year for huge meals in groups bigger than their immediate families, some traditions – offerings of red envelopes filled with lucky money, lion dancing and holiday food preparation – are being upheld and reinvented.

– Olivia Wynkoop

Shoppers pass displays of Lunar New Year decorations on Stockton Street in Chinatown on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Shoppers pass displays of Lunar New Year decorations on Stockton Street in Chinatown on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Dumpling-making party

Karen Chow didn’t grow up celebrating the Lunar New Year, even though her parents were immigrants from Hong Kong. During her childhood in Massachusetts, her family was among very few Chinese families in the area, and had no nearby relatives.

Chow’s husband, whose parents are from northern China, had a similar experience. His parents didn’t make a big deal of the Lunar New Year because they often were working, and he also didn’t have many relatives around.

Chow and fellow classroom mom Wynnie Wong decided to start hosting informal dumpling-making parties when their sons were in first grade. Her motivation was a desire to create a memorable experience of the holiday for her son.

“By the time it comes to our son, I feel like, ‘Wow, you know, this kid, his experience of being Chinese is already pretty diluted, more diluted than my experience was,’” Chow said.

After seeing how popular the parties were among parents, the pair turned it into a fundraiser, with Wong hosting the party as a Lafayette Elementary School community event for the first time last year.

Due to the pandemic, this year’s event will be a dumpling-making lesson on Zoom, with the online element gearing it to be more of a demonstration and less of a party.

“In-person, it’s really fun,” Chow said. Wong added, “We were drinking, we had wine… and we all know each other. It’s basically a party. And then my mom just demonstrated; we all made dumplings together and ate together basically.”

The two laughed as they recalled how, in-person, everyone’s dumplings ended up looking a little different even though they all had the same lesson.

“You know, I think that’s what everybody misses, right?” Chow said.

San Francisco moms Karen Chow, center, and Wynnie Wong have taken their Lunar New Year dumpling-making session online. (Screenshot)

San Francisco moms Karen Chow, center, and Wynnie Wong have taken their Lunar New Year dumpling-making session online. (Screenshot)

Wong and Chow also will miss some of their traditional home celebrations. Wong will have lunch with her parents and immediate family instead of the large family dinner she typically has on Lunar New Year’s Eve. She also likely won’t take her son Toby, who loves seeing dragon dances, to the street fair in Chinatown.

Chow plans to video chat with her mother, who she hasn’t seen since December 2019 due to the pandemic, and her brother, who lives in Singapore. Yet even though her family is spread out, she’s excited to start teaching her son more about Lunar New Year celebrations.

“I think it’ll be good to use that time to explain a lot of these traditions to my son Kai, who’s the same age as Toby,” Chow said. “Now that they’re 10, I think … you can tell them more stuff and have more of a conversation about it.”

– Madeleine Beck

Tough times for restaurants

Hang Ah Dim Sum Tea House was established in 1920 as the first dim sum house in America, says co-owner Frank Chui. It was located across the street from a park where Chinese immigrants and laborers would meet up and hang out, Chui said.

Frank Chui, owner of the 101-year-old Hang Ah Tea Room in Chinatown, won’t be serving extensively on the Lunar New Year, which typically is a good time for business. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Frank Chui, owner of the 101-year-old Hang Ah Tea Room in Chinatown, won’t be serving extensively on the Lunar New Year, which typically is a good time for business. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

“You can imagine back in 1920, this was prime real estate,” Chui laughed. “Everybody could walk by the park, would see the restaurant, they know that this is the place to be.”

Before the restaurant opened, Chui said, people didn’t have time to make dim sum or to sit down and enjoy it.

“Dim sum is such a labor intensive, handcraft item, and it does take a specific extra set of skills to do… ” Chui said. “So they didn’t really have any dim sum restaurants here.”

Chui says the restaurant’s owners can be traced back through five families. Chui and Billy Lai, a friend he met at San Francisco State University, took over the restaurant in 2014.

In 2020, business at the restaurant significantly dropped in January even before the coronavirus made its way to the United States. Within two weeks, business decreased from 70% to 90% depending on the day of the week.

“Customers just basically went away overnight,” Chui said.

As a result, Chui had to let go of most of his front of house workers and kitchen staff. Now, the eatery will also miss out on Lunar New Year business, which is normally the busiest weekend of the year.

Due to the lack of patrons, the tea house will likely remain closed, said Chui, who planned to give his remaining employees the day off to enjoy the holiday.

“Hopefully, there’s a little bit of a positive boost on the morale that, ‘Hey, I could spend time with my family,’” Chui said.

Chui said restaurants had been helped by programs recently established to help struggling businesses, including “Feed + Fuel Chinatown,” launched by the Chinatown Community Development Center and SF New Deal when the COVID shutdown began. The program funded Chinatown eateries and provided meals to seniors and residents of single room occupancy hotels and public housing, reducing the risk of virus transmission in a vulnerable population.

“Normally those residents probably don’t have the financial means to go eat out, so it helps I guess on both ends,” Chui said. “They get to eat out, try different restaurants within Chinatown, and then for us, we’re able to cook a few things per day for different neighbors.”

Another round of the program has been scheduled for 2021.

– Madeleine Beck

Lion dancers

The martial art of lion dancing, an ancient tradition said to ward off evil spirits and misfortune, featuring colorful intricate costumes, is an integral part of the Lunar New Year celebration, particularly the parade. This year, however, performances are happening via pre-recorded videos and virtual events.

LionDanceME, a company with performances boasting acrobats, 2.5 meter polls and LED-lit costumes, usually books about 200 shows throughout the season. Last year, it scheduled 27 shows for Lunar New Year alone.

But Norman Lau, founder of LionDanceME, said the company lost most of its bookings after COVID-19 put the world on halt.

“We usually do about 250 or 300 shows for the remaining rest of the year, but everyone started canceling or pushing back other events, weddings, mainly,” Lau said. “Anything from the entertainment industry was pretty much gone, and we’ve maybe done less than a handful of shows the rest of the entire year.”

Virtual performances have saved about 10 percent of the business, mostly funded by private clients. The company still performs in the streets of Chinatown, recording the activity for a virtual crowd.

“This is probably the ultimate entertaining part, where you have some type of dancing acrobats, music, sounds, firecrackers,” Lau said. “That just gives it that feeling of live entertainment for the Lunar New Year, rather than just the traditional tangerines and passing of the red envelopes.”

Meanwhile, children in West Portal Elementary’s Chinese performing arts program are sending personalized videos to patrons.

“Given everything, it’s still tradition. We try to still continue being involved where we can be and contribute,” parent volunteer and former coordinator Linda Wong said.

Students in the West Portal Elementary Chinese Performing Arts Program are dedicated to continuing tradition. (Courtesy photo)

Students in the West Portal Elementary Chinese Performing Arts Program are dedicated to continuing tradition. (Courtesy photo)

About a third of West Portal students are a part of the Chinese immersion program, in which lion dancing and other cultural performances are integrated with general education.

“West Portal was one of the first Chinese immersion programs for the public schools in San Francisco,” Wong said. “It has a long tradition of bringing both together.”

As students graduate from West Portal, they have the responsibility of teaching the art to the next generation.

“As they move on to middle school and high school, they become the teachers to teach the elementary school kids, because the parents don’t really know the routine,” Wong said. “We rely on the high school alumni to come back every year, as their schedule allows.”

– Olivia Wynkoop

A Lunar New Year ox statue stands at Portsmouth Square in Chinatown on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

A Lunar New Year ox statue stands at Portsmouth Square in Chinatown on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Virtual events

While the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Southwest Airlines annual parade has been canceled, some events are scheduled.

Year of the Ox on Parade (through March 14)

Oxen statues are on public display throughout The City.

Chinese New Year Preshow on Facebook Live (4:30 p.m. Feb. 20)

Stephen Chun (Chinese New year Parade MC), Katherine Wu (2019 Miss Chinatown USA) and K. Cheng (of “Crazy Funny Asians”) take a look at varied celebrations throughout the world.

Southwest Airlines Chinese New Year Special on KTVU 2 (6 p.m. Feb. 20)

The show offers 3D digital floats, present and past performances, with Grand Marshal Jon M. Chu, director of “Crazy Rich Asians.”

Chinese New Year Parade Float at Pier 27, Cruise Terminal Plaza (Noon to 9 p.m. Feb. 13-14 and Feb. 20-21)

The public is invited to visit the artful outdoor display.

San Francisco Symphony Chinese New Year Virtual Celebration (3 p.m. Feb. 20)

The digital concert event hosted by Joan Chen, features symphony musicians, conductor Ming Luke, yangqin player Wenying Wu, erhu player Tao Shi, and special guests.

– Examiner staff

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