'Gung Hay Fat Choy' rings in Year of the Tiger

by Judith Kahn

This year, Feb. 14 will be doubly auspicious. Not only is it Valentine's Day, but it is also the first day of the Chinese New Year.

The City will certainly be a festive place. Sweethearts will send loving thoughts to each other with roses or a box of artisan chocolates, or lingering over a romantic dinner at a special╩restaurant. As well, those of Chinese descent will be welcoming the New Year with a festive dinner, followed╩by attending the Chinese New Year╩Parade in Chinatown. Firecrackers will boom in the background, while colorful floats and marching bands, accompanied by dragon and lion dancers, pass by.

The date for the Chinese New Year varies year to year based on the lunar cycle, but it is always between Jan. 21 and Feb. 20.

Chinese calendar years are often numbered for the reign of Huangdi, and various scholars now use at least three different numbers for the year 1. As a result, 2010 could be the Chinese year of 4706, 4707 or 4646.

The holiday is 15 days long, culminating in the Lantern Festival on Feb. 28. During this event, many brightly colored paper lanterns in different sizes and in the likeness of butterflies, dragons, birds and other animals are displayed.

This New Year celebrates the Year of the Tiger, representing someone who is sensitive, emotional and capable of great love. A "tiger" person also has a tendency to get carried away, and can be stubborn about what he or she thinks is right. Often, the Tiger is one who speaks out on righting the world's wrongs, but in the process may be viewed as a rebel. They have the admirable quality of defending children, friends and loved ones against their enemies.

For those born under this sign in the Chinese zodiac there is a bright future ahead, and if they are thinking of a career change, they might consider being an explorer, a CEO or - if up for something daring - a matador.

People with birthdays in any of the following years are tigers: 1926, 1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998 or 2010. Chinese astrology says any recent setbacks or obstacles can be overcome, and tigers can look forward to a year in which they shine, either personally or professionally. For those seeking a mate, a person born under the sign of the horse is the best fit. Tiger and horse people both need independence, and understand this need in each other.╩Many writers, celebrities, and╩historic leaders were born under this sign, among them Emily Bronte, Sheryl Crow, Marilyn Monroe, Marco Polo, Queen Elizabeth II and Jon Stewart.

Chinese mythology says the beginning of the Chinese New Year started with fight against a mythical beast called the Nien. Nien came on the first day of the New Year to devour livestock, crops and even villagers - especially children. As a protection, villagers placed food outside of their doors hoping that after Nien ate it he would not be hungry for people. On one occasion, people saw that Nien was scared away by a little child wearing red, hence, the color predominates in Chinese culture, including red candies, cakes, decorations and other New Year items.

Red symbolizes prosperity, virtue, truth and sincerity. On the Chinese opera stage, a painted red face usually denotes a sacred or royal personage, and sometimes a great emperor.

Firecrackers are heard throughout the Chinese New Year celebrations, believed to drive away evil spirits. In ancient China, bamboo stems filled with gunpowder were once burned to create small explosions. Exploding firecrackers also signify a joyful time of the year and fireworks are an integral part of the Chinese New Year.

It is tradition for every family to thoroughly clean the house in order to sweep away any ill fortune. Windows and doors of households are decorated with red paper cuts and couplets with the popular themes of happiness, wealth and longevity. It is a time to settle outstanding debts and celebrate.

Throughout cities with a large Chinese population there is always a parade, and London claims to have the largest parade outside of Asia. San Francisco's parade began in 1860 and is still the oldest, most famous parade celebrated in the U.S. It is one of the few illuminated night parades. The Chinese Chamber of Commerce begins its planning in July - months ahead of the event.

Of the more than 100 units in the parade, which will be held on Saturday, Feb. 27, there will be many San Francisco schools participating. Entire streets are blocked off and lanterns create an arcade of lights. Brilliantly lit floats and mechanically driven light displays alternate with dragon and lion dances and stilt walkers. The most elaborate float in the parade carries the new Miss Chinatown, considered the perennial gem of the parade. Combining the deafening sounds of drums and cymbals with the dragon's face and the lion's aggressive dance is believed to evict╩malevolent spirits.

The Chinese dragon is a benign animal with the eyes of a rabbit, ears of a cow, antlers of a deer, mouth of a camel, whiskers of a catfish, scales of a carp, body of a serpent, paws of a tiger and the talons of an eagle. Approximately 100 people working in shifts dance the dragon through the streets as it follows the leader, enticed by the "pearl" which dangles from a pole. More than 160 feet long, the dragon is made with layers of silk, gauze, and velvet over a bamboo frame.

Starting at Market Street, the parade begins at 5:15 p.m., and proceeds to Geary, Powell, Post, and Kearny streets, rain or shine. Lasting about two and one-half hours, San Francisco's parade is a true blend of typical American marching parades and the traditional Lantern Festival. The lion and dragon dances are adopted from the Chinese celebration, but the beauty pageant, floats, drill teams and marching bands are American.

In China, from the fourth to the fifteenth day of the first month you will see lion dance groups tour the villages. All performers wear the same kind of coats, trousers, shoes and headgear, with a sash around their waists, and armed with swords and clubs to give the people an impression of grandeur. The lion's head is complete with painted eyes, nose, mouth and tongue, decorated with tinkling, tassled bells. The dance is performed by one person holding the lion's head with both hands and another bowing low and hunching his back at the lions tail.

For families, the Chinese New Year supper is a feast of pork, duck, chicken and sweet delicacies. Another traditional food served during this holiday is an elaborate vegetarian dish called Buddha's Delight, a type of black hair-like algae. As well, there is the New Year dumpling - shaped to resemble an ancient Chinese gold ingot. Mandarin oranges are the most popular and abundant fruit served. Families serve uncut noodles, symbolizing long life, and on the fifteenth day of celebrations, rice dumplings are served in a soup.

For more information about the Chinese New Year Parade, call the Chinese Chamber of Commerce╩at (415) 986-1370.