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Spectators in Hong Kong watched a Chinese New Year Parade extravaganza last week featuring two cheerleading squads from Louisiana State University, a baton-twirling team from the Czech Republic, and Powerhouse, a Glee-style singing group from Burbank known for stirring renditions of Journey songs.
The idea for that parade was imported from San Francisco in the early 1990s, after Hong Kong boosters studied videotapes of our annual Chinatown parade, which they adapted to their own globalized tastes.
But Arnold Chin, the 63-year-old retired attorney who runs the San Francisco Chinese New Year's festival, exudes no fatherly pride. Instead, he acknowledges the San Francisco parade's schlocky Hong Kong spawn with mild exasperation.
"I try to have the parade as culturally and ethnically correct to the greatest extent possible," he says. "In my mind, if the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders said they wanted to come in, I would say, 'No thank you.'"
For 20 years, Chin has worked to turn an ancient and quaint neighborhood parade into a major San Francisco media property that he says draws $800,000 in annual corporate sponsorship. At the same time, it serves as an example for Chinese-Americans wishing to honor their cultural heritage with a 15-day Chinatown festival ending in an evening parade on Feb. 19.
Guarding authenticity means battling the off-theme cheesiness. But it also entails balancing an array of competing social, economic, and political interests that want a piece of the West Coast.
Chin must satisfy three dozen or so sponsors concerned primarily with penetrating the Asian market. Parade organizers have had to resist, or adapt to, criticism coming from a Chinese-American community whose members have strong and divergent views about international affairs and local politics. (This last arena is one where the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, whose festival committee runs the parade, and its behind-the-scenes fixer, Rose Pak, are powerful players.) Festival organizers over the years have also had to heed community concerns about ethnic stereotyping, sexism, and commercial exploitation. At the same time, Chin must make sure the New Year festival performs the role the parade was first organized for 80 years ago: to draw money-spending tourists to Chinatown.
Street celebrations of Chinese New Year have been held in Chinatown since the mid-19th century, with residents welcoming a fresh year with brightly colored decorations, gifts to friends and family, and fresh flowers, while scaring off evil portents with thorough house-cleanings, firecrackers, and dragon dances.
In 1931, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce launched a formal New Year's parade to attract visitors with lion dances, concerts, dramas, and women dressed up as Chinese maidens. It was delightful — and controversial — from the start. In response to U.S. racism, the parade sought to project an aura of assimilation with events such as an American-style beauty pageant. To deflect U.S. anti-Communism, 1950s parades included Army drum and bugle units, war veterans' groups, and a car containing the local chapter of the Anti-Communist League. During the dissident 1960s, second- and third-generation young people bristled at the idea of New Year as an occasion for white tourists to gawk at model minorities. Partisans for Taiwan and mainland China, meanwhile, sought to make the parade a showcase for their opposing points of view. The parade attempted to back away from such conflicts by banning all but American flags.
"This is a community event," the news media quoted Pak as saying in 1982. We want "politics out of it." Behind the scenes, politics has always been in it.
This year, the chamber and Pak earned political prominence in San Francisco when she helped maneuver her protégé, Ed Lee, into office as interim mayor. In 2009, Pak arranged payment for Asia junkets attended by Supervisors David Chiu, Carmen Chu, and Eric Mar. The trips cost $6,122 for each, making the chamber San Francisco's top supplier of travel gifts to politicians.
"The question is whether it's a strategy to get around strict campaign contribution limits," says Jon Golinger, a Telegraph Hill resident who compiled the gift amounts and recently shared them with news outlets. The chamber, whose festival committee has collected millions of dollars over the years from sponsors, has been secretive about exactly how much of its money is spent on political activity. The IRS allows nonprofits like the chamber to spend money advocating political causes that further their mission — as long as the expenditures are reported in public filings.
The Chinese Chamber reported around $1.42 million in income for 2008/2009 and $1.48 million in expenses, according to the group's IRS filings. Parade accounts are kept separate from other chamber activities, which Chin says are paid for with member dues.
Pak is often described as a "consultant" for the chamber, and she signed her name as its representative on travel gift forms required by the San Francisco Ethics Commission. Pak's political advocacy is often described as lobbying. But she is not registered as a lobbyist with the ethics commission, and her pay does not show up on the chamber's public filings. As for the more than $18,000 the group spent on travel gifts to politicians in 2009 — that does not appear on the nonprofit's public filings, either.
A representative for the watchdog group Charity Navigator, who had an attorney review the chamber's tax forms for me, said: "If they have paid for a lobbyist, and are funding political activities, then they probably need to report it." Pak did not respond to questions about the possible discrepancy.
To Chin, who began working with the parade organization 20 years ago, flak about the Chinese Chamber of Commerce's role in city politics seems to be merely one of many sources of contentious noise.
He's in a constant struggle against schlock. Chin has to help decide whether Shriners, cheerleaders, and their ilk are allowed in. In the mid-1980s, the parade began accepting corporate sponsors; over time, this has meant waving away cigarette companies and some casinos. In 2006, the religious group Falun Gong sued to gain admission to the parade and lost.
Chin has also attempted to restore cultural authenticity. This year's event will feature elaborate floats — each costing as much as $15,000 to make, produced in consultation with sponsors to exude proper Chineseness — along with lion dancers, costumed elementary school groups, a 250-foot golden dragon, and a dancing troupe from Guangdong province.
As a relatively assimilated Chinese-American, Chin is in a good position to understand the tastes of his audience. He speaks no Mandarin, and a smattering of Cantonese. He previously hadn't fancied himself a culture vulture: "I'm an American-born Chinese. And I'm responsible for cultural preservation."
That activity, too, draws flak. As if to herald the parade's arrival as a significant American cultural phenomenon, in 2008 the University of California Press published a book titled Making An American Festival: Chinese New Year in San Francisco's Chinatown.
Author Chiou-Ling Yeh, an assistant history professor at San Diego State University, described how the parade it became a way for Chinese-Americans to manipulate their own public image — in sometimes flawed ways. Yeh's laments include commercialism, nostalgia obsession, and a failure to recognize the modern evolution of Chinese cultures here and abroad.
After reading Yeh's book, I ask Chin: Why go for old-fashioned fantasy? Why not depict Chinese culture in its real-life modern form? He answers with a good-natured lesson on globalization. "Cheerleaders are really big in Asia right now. They have cheerleading schools in Asia," he says. "But I'm not having cheerleaders."