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The Chinese New Year’s Celebration in San Francisco

For weeks the eyes of the world were focused on the Chinese balloon in the sky above the US, and then on the ocean where it crash landed after it was shot down off the Coast of South Carolina by an F-22. What now? Pundits and news junkies wonder. At the Mechanics’ Institute, a private library and a cultural hub in San Francisco, all eyes were focused on the evening of Thursday February 9, on novelist Maxine Hong Kingston, the California-born Chinese American author of China Men, The Woman Warrior and Tripmaster Monkey. With her white hair and pink jacket, Kingston looked a bit like a Chinese dowager empress. Apparently women warriors age, mellow, and would rather entertain and amuse than confront and challenge. 

Eyes at the Mechanics’ were also focused on David Lei, who sat next to Kingston. He’s the man behind the Chinese New Year‘s Parade and the vice chairman of the Chinese American Community Foundation with headquarters in Oakland. Not a word did Kingston or Lei say during the program about the infamous Chinese balloon, relations between Beijing and Washington, the status of Hong Kong, long an East Asian hot spot, or violence against Asian Americans in the Bay Area. 

It was all sweetness and light, seasoned with gentleness and kindness, and with humor and hope tossed into the wok. The Chinese Historical Society co-sponsored the event, though it might have been kicked off by the US China Friendship Society. The spirit of friendship filled a tightly packed room with an audience that mostly wasn’t composed of Asian Americans, but rather white people. Still, Kingston touted the benefits of ethnic diversity and cross cultural fertilization as good for all of us, not matter what the skin color.

 “Happy New Year,” she told the audience at the start of her performance on stage, which included the reading of one of her stories that features a rabbit that might be called magical. “I want to bring Eastern and Western thought together,” Kingston said as though she had originated the idea and without a word about Emerson and Thoreau, or Kerouac and Ginsberg who aimed to fuse Chinese and Japanese culture with American culture.

Kingston added, “I want to link the black Chinese rabbit with the white rabbit in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. 2023 is the year of the black rabbit, also known as the “water rabbit.” Fans of Lewis Carroll will no doubt remember that his spry timeless rabbit leads Alice down a hole and serves as her guide in Wonderland and host at a madcap tea party. According to Kingston the Chinese black rabbit sacrifices himself for a young girl caught in a blizzard so that she doesn't starve and die. After his death, the rabbit goes on to live forever on the moon. Did Kingston believe the tale to be true? She seemed to. She explained how one might actually see the rabbit on the moon in the night sky. She added, “Westerners would say so and so was born in the Year of the Rabbit.Chinese just say ‘He’s a rabbit.” Don’t Americans say “he’s a Capricorn and she’s a Leo.”

David Lei told the audience that in Chinese philosophy there are five elements—fire, earth, metal. water and wood— five directions—north, east, south, west and center—and five tastes—salty, sour, bitter, sweet and pungent. Not that much different from our tastes. Lei also explained that the Chinese New Year’s parade celebrated its 36th year in 2023. Televised for decades, the parade is in large part about ratings, earnings and fun for the whole family. Every year the most important figure in the parade is the dragon, a creature made up of parts from all the figures in the Chinese zodiac: the horns of a deer, head of a camel, eyes of the devil, neck of a snake, abdomen of a large cockle, scales of a carp, claws of an eagle, paws of a tiger and ears of an ox. Apparently, the dragon is all powerful in eastern as well as western mythology. Don’t mess with the dragon. Lei offered heaps of information, but the audience seemed to take it in and to enjoy it. 

 “As the Chinese people have gotten wealthier in this country they have celebrated the New Year less and less,” Lei said. “In Taiwan, where I was born, there was lots of poverty. The poorer you were, the more important the Chinese New Year’s celebration.” Lei added that the New Year’s parade as an annual event started in the US, not in Red China or Taiwan.

With the microphone in her hand and a smile on her face, Kingston explained that years ago, Chinese men in America would say to one another at the start of the New Year, “’Make a lot of money,’ because, well, we’re capitalist not communist.” Women and children, she added, would say “Happy New Year.” In her village in China today Kingston noted approvingly they say, “Have a healthy body.” Makes sense in a time of the pandemic.

Several of Kingston’s books were on sale at the Mechanics’, though not Tripmaster Monkey, her 1989 satirical novel that cuts too close to the Chinese American funny bone and the Berkeley counterculture and wasn’t really appropriate for an occasion devoted to gentleness and kindness. 

Meanwhile, the flap about the balloon continued to balloon. In the Guardian, Bonnie Glaser, a China expert, was quoted as saying “We collect intelligence on China from bases all around their east coast, in Japan, Guam and Australia. We fly P-8 flights on a daily basis and the Chinese can’t do that.” Maybe the White House ought to borrow a trick or two from Maxine Hong Kingston, pull a white and a black rabbit from a hat and tell the Chinese, “Have a healthy body.” What would Mao think? He’d probably wander through the crowd, hand out copies of the Little Red Book and tell the aging audience members, “A revolution isn’t a tea party.”

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