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Crowds (and Dragons) Pack Chinatown for San Francisco's Chinese New Year Parade

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Awkwafina, grand marshal of the Chinese New Year Festival and Parade in San Francisco on Feb. 24, 2024. (Kathryn Styer Martínez/KQED)

Thousands lined the streets of Chinatown Saturday for San Francisco’s dazzling annual Chinese New Year Parade that celebrates the Lunar New Year and the Chinese Year of the Dragon.

Beginning at Second and Market streets in downtown San Francisco at 5:15 p.m., the nearly three-hour parade made its way through Chinatown on a 1.3-mile course that rounded Union Square before ending at Kearny and Columbus Avenue.

A dragon passes by at the Chinese New Year Festival and Parade in San Francisco on Feb. 24, 2024. (Kathryn Styer Martínez/KQED)

Organizers of the parade say it’s considered one of the top ten parades in the world by the International Festivals & Events Association and the biggest Lunar New Year parade outside of Asia.

Lisa Performing Arts perform during the Chinese New Year Parade in San Francisco on Feb. 24, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Members of Lisa Performing Arts watch the Chinese New Year Parade in San Francisco on Feb. 24, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Many arrived early to get a good spot or a seat ahead of the parade. Cynthia Lee and her family, who’ve been coming to the annual event for the last five years, were there an hour before the parade started with their lawn chairs set up against the barricade.

“We have family members who are born in the year of the dragon. and this is their year,” Lee said. “It only comes around once every 12 years, and we’ve got a couple people reaching 96 this year, so the fact that they’re still around is already a big deal.”

Mayor London Breed (left) and City Administrator Carmen Chu wave to the crowd during the Chinese New Year Parade in San Francisco on Feb. 24, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Participants walk with a dragon at the Chinese New Year Festival and Parade in San Francisco on Feb. 24, 2024. (Kathryn Styer Martínez/KQED)

Calvin Hom, 73, started coming to the parade when he was 12 years old, but this year’s is the first he’s been to in 10 years.

“After the weather, we’ve been having, it’s so beautiful tonight, and after the pandemic, we gotta come out and celebrate,” said Hom, who was gifted a seat in the bleachers by a “fabulous, fabulous” friend.

“It’s a celebration of life. … It’s wall-to-wall people, I love it.”

Calvin Hom, 74, attends the Chinese New Festival and Parade in San Francisco on Feb. 24, 2024. Hom is a San Francisco native and was born in the SF Chinese Hospital. (Kathryn Styer Martínez/KQED)
Yau Kung Moon performs during the Chinese New Year Parade in San Francisco on Feb. 24, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The parade featured floats and a nearly 300-foot dragon puppet, with Golden Globe-winning comedian and actor Awkwafina as grand marshal. There are also five wooden dragon statues across the city, produced by local artists for the Lunar New Year celebrations, which will continue through March 3.

Spectators watch the Chinese New Year Parade in San Francisco on Feb. 24, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Elianna Goldstein, who used to go to the parade when she was a kid, was back for the first time in 20 years with her two kids, aged 7 and 11.

“I remember always dodging between legs trying to see anything, so I’m very excited that we have this spot, and [my kids are] going to be able to see everything up close.”

Firecrackers are set off at the Chinese New Year Parade in San Francisco on Feb. 24, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The Year of the Dragon officially began on Feb. 10 and is the fifth of the 12-year cycle of animals in the Chinese zodiac, considered a powerful and lucky sign, with those born that year being considered innovative thinkers with inquisitive minds. This is the year of the wood dragon, one of five elements along with water, earth, fire and metal. It lasts until Jan. 28 and will be followed by the Year of the Snake.

Yau Kung Moon performs during the Chinese New Year Parade in San Francisco on Feb. 24, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Lion dancers at the Chinese New Year Festival and Parade in San Francisco on Feb. 24, 2024. (Kathryn Styer Martínez/KQED)

For Alex Rodriguez, who was there with her 5-year-old, the experience this year was nostalgic.

“It was really fun when I was young; I grew up in Castro Valley, and [[our school]] would do a little dragon parade for us when I was little, so I wanted to pass on the joy,” she said. “It’s amazing. I love the costumes, the people, everybody’s so friendly. … The lion dances have also been my favorite since I was little.”

Garfield Elementary School prepares to march at the Chinese New Year Parade in San Francisco on Feb. 24, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Besides the parade, there is a Community Street Fair on Saturday and Sunday, 5:15–8 p.m., with food vendors, activities, folk dancing, opera and drumming performances organized by the San Francisco Chinese Chamber of Commerce.

Fireworks go off at the Chinese New Year Parade in San Francisco on Feb. 24, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

KQED’s Juan Carlos Lara, Lakshmi Sarah, Dana Cronin and Attila Pelit contributed to this story.

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