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Migrant Women Will March With Flags of Resilience in SF’s Chinese New Year Parade

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Women in blue vests and pink sashes hold multicolored flags on mosaic-covered steps
‘How I Keep Looking Up’ members practice marching with their flags in preparation for the Chinese New Year Parade in San Francisco’s Chinatown. (Kristie Song)

In preparation for her latest endeavor, Bay Area artist Christine Wong Yap had to brush up on her self-described “terrible” Spanish. She knew she was about to embark upon something ambitious: a trilingual community-based project that would push her to engage with strangers about the difficult subjects of mental health and migration. Over a year of extensive planning led to Yap’s How I Keep Looking Up, a public art action that centers 16 Chinese and Latinx migrant women’s resounding stories of struggle and hope.

For the past three months, Yap led workshops at 41 Ross and the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, where the women learned phrases from each other’s languages, shared meaningful anecdotes and designed flags that focus on their resilience. Many based their illustrations on comforting symbols like butterflies, birds and flowers to represent what they treasure most: their families, communities and personal journeys.

View of Portsmouth Square pedestrian bridge with line of flag holders extending down stairs and across bridge
‘How I Keep Looking Up’ members display their flags at a rehearsal. (Kristie Song)

Participant Lupita Iraheta imagined herself as a boat, providing solace for those in search of safety, home and stability — a search that, at one point, burdened her deeply. Iraheta and her fellow designers will proudly carry their flags at the San Francisco Chinatown Chinese New Year Parade on Saturday, Feb. 4.

From the beginning, the women were eager to connect with one another despite their language barriers. “I think there’s an assumption that people who live in neighborhoods which are considered ethnic enclaves are not interested in building bridges with people in other neighborhoods,” says Yap. But the group readily interacted with one another — in an environment that fostered cross-cultural dialogue, vulnerability and open communication, their stories poured out. “I think when people can see that other people are learning from their experiences, it can be very powerful,” Yap continues.

Women in blue vests and pink sashes stretch their arms in a carpeted indoor space
‘How I Keep Looking Up’ designers stretch at their parade rehearsal. (Kristie Song)

One week before their big parade debut, the group met for rehearsal at the Chinese Culture Center. Dressed in their performance costumes — iridescent blue vests adorned with shimmering flowers — they huddled close, sipping from paper cups as they awaited choreography instructions. Shortly after, How I Keep Looking Up team members Andreína Maldonado and Stephan Xie lead the women through a series of marches and moves, translating instructions into Spanish and Cantonese, respectively.

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Bright mariachi songs bounced against the walls and the room broke into laughter as they marched and danced in place, playfully chiding one another for missed steps and mistakes. It is this infectious sense of joy that will propel them forward in the cold. As the women walked in neat rows and earnest unison, they never failed to look after their neighbors — reminding each other in small ways that the bonds they’ve created here are lasting and affirming. Despite an initial lack of understanding, they’ve seen one another. On Feb. 4, they will march together, keeping each other’s stories safe.

‘How I Keep Looking Up’ designers will debut their flags at the Chinese New Year Parade in San Francisco’s Chinatown on Feb. 4. Afterwards, the flags will be exhibited at the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco Feb. 7–April 1. More information here.

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