Chinatown celebrates the Year of the Rabbit

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Hanging above the streets, lanterns add to the cheery atmosphere of the festival.

Regal red and gold hongbao envelopes fill the streets, and the steady beating of a drum draws in curious passersby. The excited cheers are only drowned out by the thunderous booming of firecrackers up and down alleyways, showering scraps of pink paper down onto the streets. It is Jan. 22, and Chinatown is celebrating Lunar New Year, the coming of the year of the rabbit. 

Lunar New Year marks the beginning of a new year according to the Lunisolar calendar. Although many often mistake it for Chinese New Year, Lunar New Year is celebrated across the Asian world in nations such as Korea and Vietnam, where it is known as Tet. No matter where it is being celebrated, Lunar New Year places a great emphasis on hope, and the festival in the Chinatown district of San Francisco is no exception. Whether it be hope for happiness, health or prosperity, optimism and anticipation are ingrained in the festival, as long-time Chinatown resident Sara Quong highlighted.

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Drawing in crowds to observe the new Zodiac Wall, a man enthusiastically plays the drums.

“The red envelopes, the hongbao that you see everywhere all on the street, they’re not just money, they’re gifts of fortune. The gift is the blessing you give to other people,” Quong said. 

The Lunar New Year celebration in Chinatown couples a beautiful and colorful festival with the desire to start the year off with luck. Another common tradition present in the festival is firecrackers, although they have become scarce in many Lunar New Year festivals amidst restrictions. The crackling the firecrackers emit can be heard coming from all directions during celebrations, if the telltale haze of smoke in the air does not already give them away. However, what may at first seem like a fun spectacle also carries a deeper meaning, as Quong explained. 

“The firecrackers they’re setting off every couple of minutes, those are fortune too. The tradition is to scare away the spirits that give bad luck. It’s good to see again after all the restrictions,” Quong said. 

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Setting off firecrackers, a group of celebrants scrambles to get out of the way.

In addition to the cheery air of good fortune, the festival also served to bring the entire district together. People blocks away were drawn to the festival, gathering and taking turns playing the drums and cheering as firecrackers popped across the street. Many more gathered to observe the zodiac wall, an intricate mural present in the heart of Chinatown. Beyond this larger community being brought together, Lunar New Year is also a time of reunion for the families who celebrate it. Tina Nguyen, a San Diego resident visiting the festival, emphasized this sentiment. 

“I came to this festival to see my family, my mom, my dad and my brother mainly. Getting to be with them for the days of the Spring Festival is the most I see them all year and this is special for that,” Nguyen said. 

Nguyen also emphasized how these common values of prosperity and family unity bring the community together. 

“I don’t live here but I’m sure that any other day, all these people you see are just walking on. No one is walking by now, everyone is together, here to celebrate together. The whole Chinatown,” Nguyen said.

No matter why one is celebrating, the Lunar New Year festival in Chinatown represents a special time for the city of San Francisco. It is a time for a whole community to come together and rejoice in the streets, celebrating their culture, their togetherness and wishing for a bit of luck along the way.