Making an American Festival: Chinese New Year in San Francisco's Chinatown by Chou-ling Yeh is an important book on an important subject. Lunar New Year is the most important holiday for both Chinese in China and overseas. It is an occasion for cleaning the house, paying off the debts, having family gatherings, visiting relatives and friends, and giving children "red envelop" money. As they practiced many other cultural traditions, Chinese immigrants brought over this tradition to the United States. As early as the nineteenth century, Chinese merchants held family or clan banquets, decorated their stores, organized lion dances, and invited American guests to the Lunar New Year celebration. The major difference between the celebration in the United States and back in the home country was that Lunar New Year became a public celebration rather than a family event.
Yeh's book covers more than the Luna New Year celebration in San Francisco's Chinatown. The author documents the origin of the New Year parade and uses the parade tradition as a central thread to explore and discuss many important issues such as the impact of Cold War politics on Chinese Americans, class division among the Chinese, and the gender inequality within the Chinese community. The content is much broader than what the title of the book suggests. Organized in 1953 by a handful of Chinatown's elite such as Henry Kwok Wong, a businessman and president of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, the Lunar New Year parade was more than an ethnic festival. It first of all showcased Chinese American loyalty to the United States, their anti-Communist sentiment, and their efforts to reach out to mainstream American society during the Korean War. The author rightly points out that the organizers dramatized the patriotism of Chinese Americans as they let Chinese American veterans of World War II and the Korean War march at the front of the parade.
However, the Golden Dragon Parade in San Francisco's Chinatown was still a remarkable Chinese American event as we think how, in the 1930s, mainstream tourist agencies guided travelers to see faux lepers and fake opium dens. In the 1950s, many Chinese, especially those who lived outside of California and New York, avoided cultural ties with their home country and stopped celebrating Lunar New Year. They preferred to be seen and regarded as "genuine" Americans rather than as Chinese Americans. American-born Chinese spoke English only, failed to learn how to use chopsticks, and shied away from ancestor worship. In fact, many Chinese families left Chinatown. Thoroughly Americanized second- and third- [End Page 248] generation Chinese Americans dispersed to other sections or suburbs of the city. By 1965, only one-fifth of the Chinese residents in San Francisco actually lived in Chinatown. The Lunar New Year parade, started in 1953, helped Chinatown gain visibility and became an important symbol of ethnic resilience.
Commercially, Lunar New Year organizers hoped to attract as many as possible white and other Americans to attend and see the parade. The elites worked with city officials and members of the city's chamber of commerce to publicize the parade. In fact, city officials and businesses funded a publicity budget in the 1950s. Many newspapers sent journalists to report on the parade. The lion or dragon dances were often followed and surrounded by floats sponsored by the California state lottery, American airlines, or banks. As a result, the Chinese Lunar New Year parade became a staged performance for tourists, resembling the Rose Parade in the Los Angeles area. "Is this my culture?" is a right question Yeh asks in chapter 6, titled "Hybridity in Culture, Memory, and Politics." When Lunar New Year observance and celebration became so Americanized, it did not look Chinese very much. Acculturated American-born Chinese also tended to ignore the old traditions. More important, when the Lunar New Year parade was placed in the "public domain," the Chinese American community could lose control of...