San Francisco Chinese New Year parade, now grand, had humble start

SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU) -- The pageantry and spectacle of San Francisco's Chinese Lunar New Year Parade has grown into an internationally recognized event that is viewed by more than 3 million spectators, including viewers on television and digital platforms from around the world who want to share in the celebration.

Although the parade now boasts professionally crafted, spectacular floats, massive marching bands, and corporate sponsorship, the modern parade is a far cry from the event's humble beginnings on Grant Avenue in San Francisco's Chinatown.

During the 1800s when San Francisco was still a growing city, Chinese immigrants would hold processions for weddings and funerals -- because parades were never part of Chinese culture or tradition.

Wayne Hu, a former director of the Chinese New Year Parade and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, is part of a Chinese-American family that has roots in the U.S. dating back to the turn of the century.

Hu says during the war years, Chinese residents would march down the street collecting donations.

"They used to carry a big flag of China and people would throw money into the flag and the money was used as charity for people in China during the war," Hu said.

It wasn't until the 1950s, Hu says, when those Chinese processions were re-born into a Chinese-American parade.

"Parades were not a thing from China that they brought over, but they created a parade to be more American," Hu said.

Chinese Historical Society Executive Director Sue lee says the evolution of the Chinese New Year Parade reflects the deeper social and cultural shifts of the 1950s and the 1960s Civil Rights era.

"The parade is a manifestation of the community's desire to be part of American society, and to be proud of Chinese heritage and history," Lee said.

In 1958, businessmen with the Chinese Chamber of Commerce became the parade organizers. They also created a nationwide Miss Chinatown USA pageant that year for glamourous young women still caught between cultures.

"They were barred from participating in the Miss America contest," Lee said.

Old black-and-white archive photos are picturesque evidence of how those Chinese Americans were forming and shaping their own cultural identities. The photos show Miss Chinatown contestants wearing American-style bathing suits and crowns, but also traditional Chinese gowns.

The parade grew to include American-style marching bands and Boy Scout troops along with the traditional lion and dragon dancers. And yet the roots remained in Chinatown businesses, community centers and schools.

"I built my first float in 1969," said David Lei, a former parade director and Asian Art Museum Board member,

"When I first started, it was a community parade and anyone could show up and be part of a parade," Lei said.

More changes came after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. That allowed new waves of Chinese immigrants into the United States, adding new diversity to the nation's melting pot.

"Now you have got Chinese immigrating from all over China, from all over the world," Lee said. "Chinese don't just speak Cantonese. They speak Mandarin, they speak Shanghaiese, they speak Fujianese, they speak all sorts of dialects and they come from all areas of China and bring their traditions and practices with them."

In 1987, KTVU broadcast the parade for the first time and one year later, became an official partner. Live broadcasts enabled the parade to attract bigger audiences, and the high profile event attracted corporate sponsors and groups from across the western region.

For over 30 years now, KTVU has been a part of the community event.

The stations news anchors, reporters and behind-the-scene crews work hard and join in the fun, through the rain or clear moon nights.

Since 2001, KTVU's Julie Haener and Rolling Stone writer and Oakland Chinatown native Ben Fong-Torres have been co-hosts.

Fong-Torres remembers watching the parade as a child, and says the event was an important link to his cultural past.

"It was a blast and it also threw me into Chinese history and lessons so I learned a lot more the things that my parents tried to drum into our heads, suddenly it was all around me and I was immersed in it and had fun with it," Fong-Torres said.

The parade path also becoming a path for non-Chinese to learn about traditions.

"It's not just Chinese Americans and people of all different backgrounds can come and watch it because it really is a celebration not just of San Francisco but of Asian culture and Chinese tradition," Haener said.

Now, more than six decades after the Chinese Chamber of Commerce decided to organize the parade, it's history and legacy continue to draw in new people, as the history and the legacy of this treasured event passes into the hands of future generations.

"The parade is always a new beginning, as with the New Year's. Our New Year's for our culture, is rebirth, a new beginning, and so there's always hope," said Lei, "There's always good luck, auspiciousness, the best for our community. Another year, another chance."

By KTVU reporter Jana Katsuyama.