As I walked with a friend in Chinatown just after the shops closed late last week, a loud bang exploded in front of us on the dark street.
As we flinched and reached out to hug each other, a small firework launched from the site of the explosion amidst the sound of cheers. I should have known; this time of year, in Chinatown, it was just people celebrating.
Thanks to San Francisco’s large Chinese population, Lunar New Year, also referred to as “Spring Festival,” is an important event in the city, with red scrolls and lanterns hanging all through Chinatown, lion dances, closed public schools and a yearly parade.
Despite being thousands of miles away from home or generations removed, the Lunar New Year, which runs for 15 days starting today, Feb. 1, remains remarkably important to many of the younger generation of Asians, and even those who pay less attention retain some of the traditions.
“If I don’t do anything special for Chinese New Year, I feel emotional and lonely. It’s like something important is missing,” said Han Wu, a 27-year-old programmer working for Google.
Since coming to the U.S. for his master’s degree in 2017, Wu has spent every Lunar New Year in America, thousands of miles away from Shijiazhuang, his home city in northern China. “For me, Chinese New Year is the most important holiday,” he said. “It’s the real beginning of the year. It’s also an important part of my cultural identity.”
Last Saturday, Wu continued his yearly tradition of inviting friends over to make his favorite leek dumplings together.
He looks back fondly on memories of lighting firecrackers in alleys, receiving gifts of money in “red envelopes” from his relatives, and, for once, having a break from constant schoolwork. Despite all these memories, “Chinese New Year in Shijiazhuang wasn’t as touching as it is in the United States. Here, I look forward to it more,” Wu said, as the Spring Festival allows him to mentally relax after a full year of hard work.
In addition to a regular video call with his parents and grandparents, Wu feels it’s important to watch the Spring Festival Gala broadcast by mainland China. Each year, the familiar orchestral crashing of the Spring Festival Overture, played with Chinese instruments, is full of power and nostalgia. “As soon as the song plays, I feel it’s really a new year,” said Wu.
Karen Chan, a 33-year-old who came to San Francisco more than a decade ago from Hong Kong, has a similar attachment to the holiday. Every year on New Year’s Eve, as a good omen, she voluntarily dons red Tang-dynasty clothes and red underwear, a tradition for men and women that is supposed to bring good luck. It is one that most young people living in China would nowadays do so only under the pressure from their families.
“Many things have changed in America. We try to keep the traditions, but the details aren’t completely there.” Just as she did in Hong Kong, Chan still checks her fortune for the next year. But, Chan said, “If it says I’ll be unlucky, I don’t think much about it.”
As a former reporter for KTSF-TV, Chan used to cover Chinatown every Lunar New Year, where she appreciated the festive atmosphere. “It really feels like a real Spring Festival,” she said.
For Diana Pang, born and raised in Chinatown and also in her 30s, the New Year is more like some fixed ritual she has inherited. “It’s probably the most important festival for my family,” she said. Each year, her mother and aunt will guide the family of six in making crystal dumplings, fried sesame balls and rice cakes. It’s also time for spring cleaning. “It’s a tradition for the family to come together. There’s no better time to plan for next year.”
“It just reminds you of your family and what’s important to them,” said Jennifer Chan, 35, a second-generation immigrant from Hong Kong. For a decade now, Chan has been a yearly volunteer in the Lunar New Year parade. Another tradition is to let the gala run on TV in the background, something her family would stay up to watch when she was a child.
Chan said, “I’ve never actually celebrated the Lunar New Year in Asia or in Hong Kong. I think it’s a lot more festive when you’re there.”
For Mission Local’s own Annika Hom, a 23-year-old fourth-generation American of mixed Chinese and Filipina descent, the meaning of Spring Festival is different. As someone born in the year of the tiger, this year’s spring festival is especially important, at least to her family. But while the Zodiac suggests she find another Tiger as a romantic partner, she doesn’t take the suggestion very seriously.
“I didn’t like it, because of the 12-year age gap,” she said. “Either I have to marry someone who’s my age, or 12 years older or younger!”
This year, Hom speculated, even the red envelopes she receives from her family would feature cartoon tigers. For her, the envelopes have always been an important family tradition, especially when her father mailed them to her as a college student in Boston, and even gave her some extra to hand out to friends, many of whom came from different cultural backgrounds.
“I really enjoyed that,” Hom said, “and I feel like when I have kids, I’ll probably pass this down. But it doesn’t have to be just a part of Chinese culture.”
Every year, she decorates her apartment with red envelopes for luck, even though she feels some of these customs have their origins in superstition. “My grandma always told me the story. She believes basically the bad spirits will give you bad luck if you don’t wear red.”
“For my grandparents, Spring Festival is the real New Year,” Hom said. “They have their Chinese name and English name. They have a Chinese age and an American age. They have the American new year. They have the Chinese New Year.”
Asked to rank the most important holidays, Hom said: “American New Year, Christmas, Thanksgiving, then Chinese New Year, I guess?”
On the other hand, many other new immigrants have no special plans to celebrate. “I’ll probably Facetime my family,” said Alvin Lee, a 31-year-old of Taiwanese and Japanese descent who acts as board member of the Milk Club and the Rose Pak Club. “I’m sure the Rose Pak Club will be doing something.”
“But no solid plans,” he said.
For 31-year-old Baiyuan Li, an educational entrepreneur who’s been shuttling back and forth between China and the United States for the past decade, Lunar New Year is an opportunity to inform other groups about Chinese culture. But while her parents took the Spring Festival very seriously, including, once, giving her a red envelope that contained over $1,000, these days Li has other things on her mind.
“Spring Festival means a new beginning,” said Li. “But I won’t waste my time on everything like I did in China.”
Cerinda Chen, 31, plans to eat hot pot with her husband at home on Chinese New Year’s Eve. But she won’t use her favorite butter soup base, because “It’s not easy to clean.”
Despite vivid memories of spending the memory of Dongting Lake with her family, a site which, today, has been greatly damaged by human activity, this year the couple plans to spend the afternoon watching video game streams online.
“I am a Chinese who’s spent a lot of time in Singapore and America,” said Chen. For her, “Identity is identity. It has nothing to do with how I spend the Chinese New Year.”
Linshuo Hong, a 25-year-old data scientist working at Meta, is among those who feel “a little bored” with the Lunar New Year. Growing up in Teochew, a city in southern China, “My family didn’t watch the Spring Festival Gala. That’s northern culture, it doesn’t resonate with southerners.” She also doesn’t like being forced to eat too much each year.
For her, the most important thing was getting red envelopes so she could start playing poker with her siblings and cousins. Her parents played a separate game nearby for larger amounts of money. Each year, the children played so long their hands trembled at the end. All the while, their pet dogs sat at their feet and watched.
“It doesn’t feel like Chinese New Year in America. It’s just a normal day,” said Hong. “On Dec. 31 each year, I realize that I am one year older, and the Chinese New Year just emphasizes that unwanted fact. I care about Chinese New Year more when my life is tough; when things are going well, I hardly think about it.”
For me, also a new arrival from mainland China, the Lunar New Year is a more complicated proposition. This year, I kept my bedroom walls thoroughly white, free from any New Year scrolls, red envelopes or tangerines, which are believed to invite good luck. I don’t plan to cram any Spring Festival shopping, spring cleaning, firecrackers or dumplings into my Apple Calendar during the 15-day Lunar New Year. My only celebration took place last Sunday, when the New Year gave me an excuse to spend $160 “celebrating” at an upscale Korean restaurant.
As I was writing this article, however, I played the Spring Festival Overture Han Wu mentioned. After the first 10 seconds, I turned off the music. I was already getting emotional.
Beyond thrilled to see the original content that unfolds the meaningful culture behind the ordinary stories. Two thumbs up for the incredible author.