Community Celebrates Chinese New Year Despite Parade Cancellation

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Even though San Francisco's Chinese New Year celebrations are mostly virtual this year because of COVID-19, members of the public can still check out 11 life-sized ox sculptures around San Francisco through Mar. 14. This one, located outside city hall, is by San Francisco artist and fashion designer Monique Zhang. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

A few days before last year’s Chinese New Year Festival and Parade, Donna Ng said nothing was going to keep her away from celebrating on the streets with her community—not even the mysterious disease that was starting to spread across the globe, causing some U.S. cities to cancel their New Year festivities.

“I don't think it's going to affect the parade,” the longtime San Francisco resident said at the time in an interview with KQED. “We’re talking thousands and thousands and thousands of people,  and only a handful are sick.”

Longtime San Francisco Chinese New Year supporter Donna Ng photographed with a Year of the Rat float right before the 2020 festivities. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

Last year, San Francisco city officials allowed the New Year street festival and parade—one of the oldest and largest in the country—to proceed, even as the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to shut down most local businesses and large public gatherings.

This year, things are very different.

“We obviously didn’t realize how bad the coronavirus was,” said Ng, reflecting back on 2020 in a video interview with KQED this past week.

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Ng said she has been mostly housebound in San Francisco over the past year, taking care of her 93-year-old mother. She’s seen her property management business plummet.

“There’s been tons of vacancies and I can’t fill them,” Ng said. “It’s been hard.”

And Ng said she’s really going to miss the annual Chinese New Year parade, which has been canceled because of the pandemic. She’s been involved with it for around 30 years.

“It’s really sad,” said Ng.

“We know that everyone would love to come out to watch the lion dances, the dragon dances, the dancers, hear the firecrackers and stuff like that,” said parade organizer William Gee. “Unfortunately, we just felt it would be irresponsible of us to actually hold a live performance this year.”

Gee said his team decided to cancel the 2021 parade late last summer after consulting with city health officials.

But he said it’s still important to help the community feel connected to traditions.

So for the first time, the annual TV special, scheduled for Feb. 20, will attempt to translate elements from what would have been the live festivities to the screen, such as the appearance of some of the sponsored floats that would under normal circumstances be seen trundling along the city streets on parade day.

“Despite the pandemic, we haven’t given up,” said Ethel Reddy, the Lunar New Year celebration’s community liaison for longtime event sponsor Bank of America. She said the bank’s float will be revealed as part of the TV special. “We found new ways to continue with traditions.”

The TV special will also feature a video appearance by this year’s grand marshal—Bay Area native Jon Chu, best known for directing Crazy Rich Asians.

“This will be the first time we’ve done something like this,” Gee said. “Typically the grand marshal rides in a car along with the parade.”

But there are still one or two ways to experience the Year of the Ox outdoors.

The event’s main sponsor, Southwest Airlines, plans to display its float publicly, albeit in stationary fashion, at Pier 27 on the weekends of Feb. 13-14 and Feb. 20-21.

And the parade organizers have also commissioned local artists to adorn 11 life-sized, beautifully painted ox sculptures scattered around the city.

Monique Zhang poses with her ox outside city hall. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

An online map shows the locations of the artworks, which are on display through Mar. 14, and the event organizers have launched a social media photo contest, encouraging members of of the public to submit selfies with the colorful bovines.

“Most people think the ox is a forceful beast,” said San Francisco artist and fashion designer Monique Zhang, whose ox sculpture is bright yellow and orange with cute, little heart shaped flowers adorning its cheeks. “But actually in nature it’s a very gentle giant.”

Zhang’s artwork is located on the plaza across the street from city hall. She said the ox represents hard work, patience, honesty—qualities everyone could use right now.

“People are so much afraid of each other now because we can’t see where the virus is,” Zhang said. “But the heart within yourself can generate fearlessness.”

“Even though I wish we could have the real parade, the ox project really makes me happy,” said Deyi Robin Zhao, a young Oakland-based student at the California College of the Arts and the artist behind two of the ox sculptures. One is a modern take on traditional blue and white Chinese porcelain motifs (located at Sacramento Plaza), and the other, adorned in pink blossoms and located at Portsmouth Square, highlights themes of springtime, strength and peace.

Deyi Robin Zhao works on one of her two ox sculptures. (Courtesy Deyi Robin Zhao)

“We still want to pass the love for our community and tell our community that even though we’re in this hard pandemic year, we’re still here for everybody and art still lives in our hearts with these oxen.”

Chinese people in the Bay Area have been hit very hard this past year. They’ve been a target of xenophobic rhetoric and attacks.

Things have been bad for business too. According to San Francisco’s Chinatown Community Development Center, small Chinese-owned businesses usually make 30% of their annual income in the lead up to the new year celebrations -- so, as a result of the pandemic, they'll be seeing a major drop this year. 

That’s why longtime fan Ng said it’s especially important for people to feel a sense of community pride right now.   

In addition to celebrating Lunar New Year as usual at home, with fresh flowers, customary foods like chicken and oranges, and hongbaos (the small red paper envelopes filled with money that people give to each other as gifts) Ng is also looking forward to heading out in the coming week or two to check out the ox sculptures. She said she and her mom just got the COVID-19 vaccine. 

“You still have to try to think normal, do things normally as best as you can,” Ng said. “I mean, you don’t want to say, ‘Oh, with COVID, no Chinese New Year celebration.’ That just doesn’t work.”

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