San Francisco’s Chinese New Year Parade, a citywide celebration, is an entirely American creation, analogous to chop suey or fortune cookies. Representative of such community events, the dragon head held by the Chinese Historical Society of America encapsulates a rich and dynamic history of the dragon parade phenomenon and represents a community’s will to survive against extreme adversity.
This large, expressive dragon head was salvaged from a street corner after a parade in the late 1980s. Text written on it states that the head was organized by Yonghe Yuan in Hong Kong and manufactured by Wan Xiang Club, Guangzhou, Guangdong Province. Weighing about 35 pounds, the head has a mirrored forehead, blinking eyes with battery-powered bulbs for evening parades, and a manually operated chomping mouth. The head and body drape are made of hand-painted silk, sequins, fur, sisal, and bells over bamboo ribbing and wire. In a performance, one dancer dons and operates the head while the sinuous body is draped over tall staffs held by athletic dancers, and musicians play percussion instruments to create a lively, spectacularly boisterous atmosphere for the audience. During the parade, it follows a round, red object that symbolizes the sun, the moon, and potential. The Chinese dragon is a beneficent creature of strength and goodness.
Colorful costumes traditionally used during Lunar New Year were brought to the United States by Chinese immigrants in the 19th century. San Francisco’s first reported Chinese New Year festivities occurred on February 21, 1851, shortly after the first Chinese arrived. What began as a private indoor family celebration migrated outward when early Chinese merchants arranged banquets, decorated stores, and organized colorful performances on Chinatown streets during the Lunar New Year. Newspapers first reported the appearance of large dragon dance ensembles and acrobatic dancers on San Francisco streets in the 1860 Year of the Monkey celebrations. Historical photographs show that by the 1880s, Chinatown processions featured dragons prominently.
Although the 1882 Exclusion Act brought isolation, discrimination, and uncertainty to Chinatown, the devastating 1906 earthquake created a turning point: Chinatown leaders rebuilt an “Oriental City” with tourism and commerce in mind. In 1909, an elaborate Chinatown dragon joined the parade for the Portola Festival. The parade’s positive reception outside Chinatown helped to reshape the neighborhood’s reputation of gambling parlors, opium dens, and tong wars. Once a private family and then community celebration, the Chinatown parades evolved into a public event, a tool of civic engagement amplifying the public’s curiosity and interest in Chinatown.
In 1953, Chinatown leaders officially established the Chinese New Year Parade. The parade symbolized Chinatown’s unique commercial status and the broader narrative of its legitimacy within the greater American society. More than a mere ethnic festival, the parade, its dragon, and dance troupes demonstrated Chinese Americans’ allegiance to the United States during the Cold War, their stance against communism in China, and their endeavors to integrate into mainstream American society. Prominently featuring patriotic Chinese American veterans of World War II and the Korean War, this modern parade revived a preexisting strategy of deploying dragons for the community’s survival and, equally important, as a teaching tool.
The modern New Year parade and its golden dragon continue to draw crowds to Chinatown and the city at large during cultural celebrations and grace milestone events such as weddings, red-egg-and-ginger parties, business openings, and various festivals. The use and deployment of the large dragon head and troupe attest to the ingenuity, resourcefulness, and endurance of an excluded and segregated community. The iconic dragon expresses Chinese America’s history of adaptation and serves as a powerful example of a community’s strategic survival against long odds.
Douglas S. Chan is board president and Palma J. You is collections manager at the Chinese Historical Society of America.
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