From underneath the dragon, the Chinese New Year parade in San Francisco is a fast, loud, and exciting event. Children scream and reach their hands up for the lower edge of the dragon as we sweep it over their heads. Keeping up with the runner in front of you takes concentration. Sometimes, around a curve, the dragon whips around, almost as if it were really alive, taking you with it as you run and try to keep up. It feels like flying. Occasionally you get glimpses of other things happening as you run by them: A lion dancing team running over to the side of the street, the lion reaching over and trying to eat a firecracker dangling from a fishing pole that someone is holding out of a doorway. And then, moments later, a massive, rapid-fire cluster of bangs as a huge string of fat, red firecrackers goes off, deafening all other sounds for half a minute. As soon as the firecrackers stop, the crowd roars. When you get too tired to run and carry the dragon, you hold out a hand and another of the yellow-uniformed volunteers steps in to relieve you. Then you get to step out, and run alongside the dragon–in a straight line this time, instead of curving back and forth, forward and retrograde, all over the street–and jogging slowly alongside the dragon you can see a bit more of the action. People say it’s good luck to touch the dragon, but the kids know the real deal: It’s just fun, and exciting. Even the steely-eyed cops smile a little as the fringe brushes across the brims of their caps.
a deafening explosion
But before all that could happen, we first had to go to the martial arts school whose dragon we’d be running. The Yau Kung Moon kung fu school is on the fourth floor of an ancient-looking walkup in Chinatown, on Waverly, just upstairs from a Buddhist temple where an old man and and old woman sit at a desk, smiling at the action passing by their door. We check in early. They give us our uniforms: shiny yellow pants, red and black leggings for our calves, a long red sash, and a yellow Yau Kung Moon t-shirt. Next to each runner’s name they write down a number, then write that number on the runner’s hand with a red Sharpie. After the parade they’ll use these numbers to make sure everyone gives back their uniform. Then we sit around in the school’s studio room, together with a couple of dragons and lion heads, for a couple of hours.
Eventually it’s time to take the dragon downstairs. I’ve never seen a dragon negotiate stairs before, and this is a narrow stairwell. Everyone grabs a pole and heads down one at a time. Somehow the dragon makes it down past the temple and out onto the street without mishap. Then we walk, with the dragon and our new uniforms, out of Chinatown through the Stockton St. tunnel and over to Union Square. The Yau Kung Moon lion dancers are world champions in the sport, and they’re going to give a special performance in front of the bleachers in Union Square before the parade officially starts. The dragon is there too, and as a result we have the best seats in the city for the first part of the parade.
We’re sitting there in the middle of Geary Street, right across from Macy’s. I break off to go watch the lion dancers do their thing underneath a massive bank of lights held up on top of a crane (the better for the TV cameras to see — click here for video of the Yau Kung Moon performance). When I come back, we watch ROTC groups, JROTC high school teams, and high school cheerleaders walk by. Political dignitaries ride by in Mustangs of various kinds. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi drives up and parks directly in front of us for about five minutes. I shout, “Keep up the good work, Nancy!” and she shouts back, “Thank you!”
A pair of tourists come up behind me, a man and a woman. “Is that Nancy Pelosi?” the man asks. “Do you really think her type of socialism is good for this country?”
“You’re not from around here, are you?” I say. “Are you from the Midwest by any chance?”
“I’m from Georgia!” the man proudly says. Then he shouts: “Nancy, you oughta support our troops in Iraq!”
I talk with him and his wife a bit. He’s ex-Navy Reserves, just retired recently. The two of them got married a week ago and are on their honeymoon in San Francisco. They pretty much stumbled onto the parade and somehow got an amazingly good vantage point, right behind our dragon on Geary. The man good-naturedly shouts words of encouragement at various San Francisco supervisors he’s never heard of. Someone whose car says they are from the State Board of Equalization drives by. “I’m afraid to ask what the Board of Equalization is!” he comments.
Later, we practice running the dragon around on Geary street a bit, in front of the now-thick crowds. We learn how to bank the dragon out over the crowd on the outside of a turn, how to shift our grips so that we can lean the poles way out to the side. We manage to do a few graceful, rippling waves. The whole time we’re running, the dragon is chasing a man who is holding up a fancy, decorated ball on a stick. The man, who I later learn has been studying Yau Kung Moon for 26 years, looks almost exactly like Rod Stewart.
When someone blows a whistle, we all stop and drop to our right knees. We spend a long time sitting there, the dragon curled up in a tight spiral from which it seems impossible for it to ever come uncurled again. I look out from under the dragon. The sky is darkening over the tall buildings all around us. Alma Spreckels is still flying, triumphant, on the top of the pole in the middle of the square. Red neon advertises dancing at the Starlight Room. Then, with the moon just rising over the Britax Fabrics store, two young men wearing protective goggles set off two huge strings of firecrackers, and the parade begins. We are off and running.
the dragon runners’ faces
shining with sweat
Later, after the parade, the sifu (teacher) of the Yau Kung Moon school takes all of the students and volunteers out to a big banquet at the Far East restaurant in Chinatown. Waiters bring dish after dish: chicken, duck, beef and vegetables, pork ribs, a whole roast chicken (beak pointing up at the head end of its carefully segmented body), fried fish, bok choy. I sit next to some young lion dancers, about 20 years old. Some of them have been coming to this school for 15 years. They are fully done up in Abercrombie clothes, sideways caps, and the like. One of them has a big diamond in one ear and a blinking bluetooth headset in the other. These guys are polite and thoughtful, serving food to each other even when the others have gone off to get some more beer at the bar. They answer our questions and tell us about lion dancing, their style of kung fu. “This school is like my second family,” one of them says.
As the banquet rolls on the older adults get louder and more and more festive. Every few minutes one of the tables raises their glasses in a toast, everyone standing up and roaring at the top of their lungs as they clink. All of the sifus come to each of the tables, and thank us for helping out. We thank them, and drink toasts to each of them.
At the end of the night we walk back to the car, elated from the running, the energy, the food. I feel as if I’m living in a borrowed life, a more charmed and entertaining life than I usually inhabit. My legs are sore and my clothes stink with sweat. But the night air feels cool, and I feel good.
Happy new year, everyone.