We decided some time ago to plan our trip to New York City so that it would coincide with Chinese New Year. We were curious to see how it was celebrated in a major US Chinatown, far from China and the other parts of Asia where the New Year is the most important holiday of the year.
In Hong Kong, as in other parts of China, Chinese New Year has a raucous outer shell, with brightly decorated streets, massive fireworks displays on the waterfront, and lion dances everywhere you turn. But it is the inner celebrations that are the important ones. It is a time to be spent with family, so most Chinese have their one significant vacation at this time of year, so that they can travel to wherever their family lives. On the Mainland this means millions of people are in transit. It is NOT a good time to visit Beijing!
During Chinese New Year, everything shuts down. Restaurants, banks, businesses, all are closed. The first year we were in Asia we stayed in Hong Kong, curious to see what it would be like. We found out that things got very quiet, and almost everyone left town, either to visit relatives, or, if they weren’t Chinese, to vacation in a non-Chinese locale. The following year we went to Bali, and the year after that, to Bangkok, Cambodia, and Laos.
Sunday in New York was sunny and not nearly as cold as it had been. It was a perfect day for having brunch at a Jewish deli (Lansky’s on the Upper West Side) and then taking a taxi to Chinatown. We knew there was a parade in Chinatown on Sunday, and we decided we’d go and see what that was like.
Once we got to Canal Street the crowds were intense, but nothing that a couple of Hong Kong veterans couldn’t handle! The problem was figuring out how to get to a place where we would be able to see the parade. The police had the streets blocked off, and everywhere they kept telling people to “go around”, which we did. But there didn’t seem to be any access to the area where the parade would pass by. It was very confusing.
Finally on one corner there was a church vestibule that was unlocked. People were streaming through one door and going out another, thereby gaining access to the parade route. We boldly followed the crowds, and we were in!
Suddenly it got REALLY crowded. This was far beyond a typical Chinatown crowd, or even a Saturday morning in Wan Chai crowd. We were pushed along by a mass of people, until we came to a corner. In front of us was the street where the parade would pass by. To the right and left it was solid people. There was no way to move. Everyone was crushed together, and it seemed to be getting worse. Little Chinese ladies, determined and undeterred, tried to make their way through the crowd, but even they couldn’t do it. At one point my feet actually lifted off the ground. At least it was cold outside; nobody was going to pass out from heat stroke while being crushed.
The Chinese in the crowd were annoyed that they couldn’t pass; most local New Yorkers were patient and philosophical about our predicament; a few tourists, however, got a bit panicky. We couldn’t see a thing and couldn’t tell where the intense crush began and where it ended. All we could do was wait.
As suddenly as it began, the crush gave way and we could move again. It was very strange. We never really figured out what happened; why the crowd got so bad and why it became manageable again.
After that we started to have fun. We found a good place to stand and waited for the parade to pass by. People were shooting off these confetti bombs. The paper streamers and glitter were packed into a pressurized tube. When one end of the tube was twisted it exploded with a loud POP! And brightly colored streamers would be hurled into the sky, eventually settling on everyone’s hair and coat, and all over the street. It was very pretty, and fun to watch.
Then the parade started. Well, it wasn’t the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade by any means! I felt like I was watching a holiday parade in a small town, albeit one with a large Chinese population!
Small marching bands marched. Home-made floats with smiling beauty queens floated. Traditional drummers escorted lions and dragons on their way.
Groups of dignified elderly ladies wearing bunny ears passed. And yes, Bugs Bunny was well represented!
After an hour or so we were satisfied that we had seen enough and left the parade route. We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around Soho, shopping for leather couches for our house and fashion accessories for me. Later than evening while getting ready for bed, I shook my head a bit and a cloud of confetti fell on the bathroom floor. I kept shaking it and running my fingers through my hair, until I had a tidy collection of glitter and colored paper bits to scoop up and throw away. I’m still finding bits and pieces in my coat pockets and my purse.