SAN FRANCISCO -- In New York, where I grew up, Chinese New Year is a big deal. Every year, firecrackers pop in the streets, a massive cloth dragon moves sinuously through the crowds, and lion dancers boogie up to restaurants and other neighborhood businesses to receive hung bao, or red envelopes filled with lucky money to bring them prosperity in the new year.
There's a lot of neighborhood pride -- New Yorkers, of course, are known for that -- and I never really thought about celebrations elsewhere until recently, when I moved to northern California, also famously home to a large Chinese population.
Though it may sound sacrilegious, San Francisco's Chinese New Year celebrations might give New York's a run for their money.
First of all, there's their size. Every year, more than half a million people come to see the parade and millions more watch on television; it could be the largest celebration of its kind outside of Asia. This winter, the Year of the Rooster starts crowing on Feb. 9 -- Chinese New Year Day. Bay Area festivities begin on Feb. 5 and run for a fortnight, closing with a bang on Feb. 19 with the Chinese New Year Parade.
As always, glittering floats and stilt walkers are highlights in the processional, which has its origins in a smaller, humbler neighborhood event first held about a century and a half ago. In the late 1800s, Chinese immigrants marched down local streets in Chinatown with makeshift flags and lanterns, armed with drums and firecrackers (still ubiquitous in modern-day celebrations) to ward off evil spirits upon the birth of the new year.
These days, huge crowds have expanded the parade path beyond Grant and Kearny streets to surrounding streets, and corporate sponsorship has made the display ever more extravagant. Starting at Second and Market streets, the energetic line of colorful floats, high-kicking martial artists, school marching bands, lion dancers, Chinese acrobats, and other cultural groups wends its way around Geary, Powell, and Post streets, turning on Kearny Street and coming to the finish line at Columbus Avenue. There, the Gum Lung, or Golden Dragon -- a 200-foot, silk-covered bamboo puppet -- dances in the grand finale to the accompaniment of 600,000 firecrackers.
Presiding over the event is the newly crowned Miss Chinatown USA, who competes for the title during the two weeks leading up to the parade. The pageant awards scholarships and other prizes to young Chinese-American women from across the country (contestants must be single and between 17 and 26 years of age). In existence since 1958, the pageant is an official part of San Francisco's Chinese New Year cultural events schedule, and visitors can purchase tickets to watch the young women sing, dance, and smile in pursuit of the title. Contestants also participate in a cheongsam, or traditional Chinese gown, competition and demonstrate their verbal finesse in a question-and-answer period.
From the look of the festival's other events, contestants might do well to talk about what everyone else is interested in: the food.
Restaurants around the city prepare special New Year menus and hold banquets, and vendors set up shop in the street carnival, which is open daily throughout the holiday. Visitors can sample any number of popular Chinese New Year foods, including dried bean curd, red melon seeds, candied coconut, lotus seeds, gingko nuts, black moss seaweed, and neen goh, a chewy rice cake.
A flower market is held on the first weekend of the festival, showcasing the importance of specific kinds of blossoms (flowering quince, gladioli, peach blossoms, orchids) in Chinese New Year folklore; the market also sells an impressive array of edible produce. Locals from all over the city come to the fair to buy traditional holiday plants and fruits, such as oranges, pomelos, and tangerines to display at home.
Traditionally, the foods served symbolize happiness, wealth, and good luck; eight-course meals are customary, because the Chinese word for ''eight" sounds like the word for ''prosper," and clams in black bean sauce are particularly popular because their shells look like Chinese coins.
You can work off some of the dishes you sample with 5- and 10-kilometer fun runs and walks, popular with families and sponsored by the Chinatown YMCA. Other family-friendly activities can be found at the Chinatown Community Street Fair, where children learn how to make kites and lanterns, do calligraphy, and watch traditional puppet shows.
Other events include an annual fund-raiser to benefit youth and education programs at the San Francisco Symphony, featuring a lavish imperial banquet and concert with traditional Chinese instruments. The Asian Art Museum hosts special live and interactive events during the holiday and dispatches a special themed float in the parade.
I haven't decided yet which celebrations take the cake. But when the Year of the Rooster comes around, you will find me in Chinatown -- neen goh in hand.
Bonnie Tsui is a freelance writer in California.