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Oakland Chinatown Lantern Festival Embraces Tradition, Old and New

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A plaza in Oakland Chinatown decorated with red paper lanterns
This year's Lantern Festival celebration is meant to bring a lively sense of community to Oakland Chinatown. (Joyce Xi, courtesy of Oakland Bloom)

This weekend’s Oakland Chinatown Lantern Festival celebration is decidedly new-school: Street food offerings will include Hong Kong curry fish balls, Malagasy hot pepper sauce and Oaxacan chocolate. In place of a traditional lion or dragon dance will be a performance by the Bay Area hip-hop dance crew Tribe of the Dragon. A lineup of globally-inspired DJs will close out the holiday with a full-on dance party.

If that doesn’t quite sound like your grandmother’s Lantern Festival, that’s very much intentional — although Diana Wu, executive director of the nonprofit kitchen incubator Oakland Bloom, stresses that the event will still offer plenty to Chinatown’s longstanding communities of immigrant grandparents, too.

“We do want to share the legacies, themes and spirit of the festival,” says Wu, whose organization is co-hosting the event at Chinatown’s Pacific Renaissance Plaza for the second year in a row. “But we also wanted to make it reflect Oakland — to serve the different diverse communities that make up Oakland.”

Five people pose for a photo; the two on the edges form a heart shape with their arms.
Staff from the kitchen incubator Oakland Bloom at last year’s inaugural Lantern Festival event. (Courtesy of Oakland Bloom)

Co-organized with the Sticky Rice Club nonprofit community development corporation and AAPI Healers for Liberation, this year’s two-day Lantern Festival celebration will build on the themes of last year’s inaugural event, which was conceived in large part as a “healing space.” That focus on self-care and community healing felt especially pertinent in light of the violence that had impacted Asian American communities both within and outside of Chinatown around that time, including mass shootings in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay.

Traditionally, the Lantern Festival — aka Yuanxiao Jie — takes place on the 15th day of the Lunar New Year, marking the end of holiday festivities with red paper lanterns symbolizing a prosperous new beginning.

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At the Oakland Chinatown event, even the most seemingly “traditional” aspects of the celebration will have a modern, multicultural twist. As part of an altar-building activity to honor the ancestors, the chef behind the Palestinian-Cuban pop-up Asúkar will create an altar for Palestine. Even the guqin performance — featuring the traditional seven-string instrument with more than 3,000 years of history in China — will be slightly unorthodox: The performer, Gabby Wen, uses synthesizers and field recordings along with the guqin to make experimental electroacoustic music.

An egg custard tart topped with a marshmallow
A non-traditional egg custard tart, topped with a marshmallow, from Hong Kong-style food pop-up M and D. (Courtesy of Oakland Bloom)

The emerging immigrant food entrepreneurs in Oakland Bloom’s incubator program will supply the food for the event — and here, too, Wu says, the idea is to engage the multiple generations and diasporas that make up Oakland. So, even though it’s a Lunar New Year event, not all of the food will be Asian. Alongside, say, Tabachito’s Filipino fusion offerings, there will also be Palestinian-Cuban food, and perhaps the only Bay Area food business that specializes in the cuisine of Madagascar.

Wu says one Oakland Bloom vendor, M and D Food, is especially emblematic of the festival’s multigenerational approach. Known for its take on Hong Kong street foods like milk tea and curry fish balls, the business itself is a mother-and-daughter operation. Meanwhile, the chef’s father is visiting from Hong Kong, so he’ll be on hand to provide customers with auspicious, handwritten Chinese calligraphy scrolls — a traditional touch from the older generation.

As for the actual lantern component of the festival, Wu concedes that there won’t be quite as magnificent a display as there was during last year’s inaugural event, when 88 red lanterns soared over the Pacific Renaissance Plaza. This year, a smaller number of lanterns will be integrated into the festival decor, and Friends of Lincoln Square Park will lead a hands-on activity that will give kids the opportunity to make small paper lanterns of their own.

Filipino pork skewers on a metal tray.
Filipino barbecue pork skewers by Tabachito. (Courtesy of Oakland Bloom)

On both days of the event, the itinerary will extend after dark, until 8 p.m., when many of Oakland Chinatown’s businesses will have already closed. For a neighborhood still struggling to get on its feet in the wake of a devastating pandemic, the hope is that events like the Lantern Festival — with those red lanterns shining bright in the sky — can help bring a lively sense of community.

“One of the goals was to create moments of community coming together in publicly accessible spaces in Oakland Chinatown and to really support people coming out at night there,” Wu says.

The Oakland Chinatown Lantern Festival will take place in and around the Pacific Renaissance Plaza (388 9th St., Oakland) on Saturday, Feb. 24 and Sunday, Feb. 25, from 3–8 p.m. each day. Check the full event schedule for each day’s lineup of workshops, performances and food vendors, and follow Oakland Bloom and AAPI Healers for Liberation on Instagram for updates.

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