We were recently back in the United States for a few weeks to take care of some business and visit with friends and family. Though I’ll never get used to living with Beijing’s air no matter how long we stay here, going back and experiencing suburban and exurban sprawl as a now disenfranchised non-driver reminded me of some of the best things we gained by moving. Public transit in Beijing has its problems and capacity growth still hasn’t caught up with demand, but I can still get just about anywhere I need or want to go on a bus or train. Most importantly, as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to find that being surrounded by masses of humanity is the one thing that makes me feel most… human. It wasn’t until a brief stop in Philadelphia and eventually coming back up to New York City after a tour of the Mid-Atlantic seaboard that we really felt we had returned to places we recognized as complete communities. We stayed in the Chinatown section of Flushing, though the Long Island Rail Road and 7 train made getting to and around other parts of town a straightforward matter.
While most eyes were focused on the Super Bowl across the Hudson River in New Jersey, we opted for a spectacle of a different sort, street celebrations for Lunar New Year, also called Chinese New Year or the Spring Festival. Though Flushing’s official parade was scheduled for after we would return to China, there were plenty of lion dancing (舞狮 wushi) teams making rounds of the local businesses in search of their annual red envelopes of money. On Sunday, February 2 both Manhattan and Sunset Park Chinatowns held their official events, and we made our way down to Brooklyn to meet some old friends at the latter.
Sunset Park’s Chinatown is all loaded onto 8th Avenue, running from the N train station near 61st Street all the way up to about 40th Street, through most of the action happens in the southern half. Compared with other New York City Chinatowns, this one is more diverse, comprising immigrants from multiple areas of Mainland China and Hong Kong, as well as mixing with Hispanic and other communities in the area.
We arrived in the morning, planning to eat lunch and wait for the 1:00pm parade, so were confused to find the street looking as if one had already come through. We eventually figured out that people there were just taking advantage of the blocked off streets to get the party started early. Those tubes above have a small gunpowder charge and blast a mound of confetti into the air. Though not sharp and frenetic like firecrackers, the tubes pack an impressive thud that makes you wonder if a small canon hadn’t been rolled in.
Rotating street fairs around the city give residents the occasional experience of having the run of the entire street, though with vendors lined up in the road it’s still a structured space and event. With 8th Avenue closed (but clear) for the parade, people were able to freely stroll its entire width as at Tokyo’s weekly “pedestrian paradises” (歩行者天国 hokōsha tengoku) in places like Akihabara and Kagurazaka.
There were, however, visiting vendors and extra store displays placed out at the edge of the sidewalk, which my daughter was quick to point out.
There were multiple teams of lion dancers and drums, so that no matter where you were you’d be in sight or earshot of one.
Business owners “feed” the lion a red envelope (红包 hongbao) containing money in return for the dancers’ service of bringing good luck and fortune.
For some, silly string one-upmanship evolved into a form of combat.
While most adults opt for regular street closes, many of the children come decked out in bright costumes.
Here comes the parade, or so we thought.
Wait, time for one more!
Wait. That was it? Compared with the elaborate arrangements of its counterparts in Manhattan and Flushing, you might think that the humble group assembled was a bit of an anti-climax. Looked at differently, the energy of the huge crowd drawn just completely dwarfed the formal proceedings, creating its own sense of purpose long before things started and continuing well after. In Sunset Park, the community was the event.
Besides, you don’t really need a parade when you can make your own, following the lions from store to store.
As the crowd began to wind down, normal patterns of shoppers at fish and produce markets reemerged, though one hoped that some of the magic would hang around, at least for a little while longer.