February wanes; the Year of the Rat is done. A foul rodent of a year, leering through sharp filthy teeth has passed and given way to the ox. In ordinary healthy times San Francisco’s Chinatown would now be winding down from the February festivities. February is when Chinatown typically dresses up in it’s finest, brightest gold and red.
Chinatown in February has always, whether in lean times or flush, been a cultural feast. It teases the senses. The brilliant red of the ubiquitous lucky money envelopes, the multi-colored dragons and lion dancers and the big parade itself, a brilliant canvas of colors and joyful faces.
The popping of thousands of firecrackers; the beating drums and the clanging cymbals and gongs that accompany the gyrating lion dancers. Leave the acrid odor of spent firecrackers on the street and enter the aroma of a banquet room of New Years’ delights. The crunch and pleasing warmth of a freshly fried spring roll. And the tastes; the sweetness of rice cakes; juicy tang of a tangerine; a savory slice of roasted chicken or a whole steamed fish blessed with ginger and soy.
February is a time when the Asian community looks forward to prosperity and good fortune. This COVID year, prosperity and good fortune have been hard to come by. The Year of the Rat delivered a trio of curses; the virus itself, economic hardship and a spate of violence incited by a former president and his acolytes; a malevolent group searching for someone to blame, found Asians to be a target of opportunity.
Despite it all the community has been resilient. It’s pulled together to do what little was possible, while doing as much as it could to observe the changing of the Zodiac.
Anyone who has read this blog and my posts on Chinatown knows my affection for The City’s cultural jewel. It’s a place of memories that reach back to my childhood.
Readers of this blog also know that I usually stay away from kitsch laden, touristy Grant Avenue. I prefer to keep to the streets, the alleys and the shops where the community and culture are alive and authentic.
Early in February I took a Sunday walk up Grant Avenue, curious to see what COVID has wrought. On a Sunday during the run up to the Lunar New Year parade, one should expect to weave in and out of a nine block long stream of foot traffic; to join a crowd gathered to watch a troupe of lion dancers or to see people hopping comically away from a string of exploding firecrackers.
Below, Chinatown in the pre-COVID times.