Inside the Chinese New Year Parade with Ben Fong-Torres
Watching the Chinese New Year Parade is a guaranteed rollicking good time: dragons, dancers, and amazing floats are all a part of the scene that has been happening locally since the 1860s and is one of the biggest celebrations of Asian culture. For an insider’s take on this fun parade happening on Saturday, February 15, 7x7 caught up with Ben Fong-Torres, who will celebrate his 18th round as co-anchor for the festivities for the KTVU television station.
Fong-Torres is the well-regarded rock journalist and broadcaster who penned pieces on rock royalty for Rolling Stone magazine and has a weekly “Radio Waves” column for the San Francisco Chronicle. He is the author of Willin': The Story of Little Feat (Da Capo Press), Eagles: Taking It to the Limit (Running Press), The Grateful Dead Scrapbook (Chronicle Books), The Doors (The Doors By The Doors) and The Rice Room, which is his memoir about growing up in the Bay Area. He was portrayed in the 2000 film Almost Famous by actor Terry Chen and has deep ties to local and national musical and cultural communities. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Ben Fong-Torres and Julie Haener
This is your 18th year as co-anchor. How do you prepare?
Every year there’s a writer who talks with the parade organizers and various organizations and comes up with the script to describe the floats, dignitaries, and animals. When we go through the script for the first time, Jim will show us who the opening act is and we watch videos on the groups.
Sometimes we’ll go to the float barn at the piers, where the float builder and his team are putting together the floats. He’ll guide us through what is outstanding and new, and then show us things like “here’s a little secret trap door” on a float. That’s so the scriptwriter knows to point to that facet of the float (and it also means that Julie and I will sound like we know what we're talking about!).
How has the parade changed over the years?
It’s gotten more organized. Sometimes contingents fall out of order and we have to scramble, like the year the Stanford marching band was supposed to be at the end of the parade so we had a dancing tree running around with the golden lion—which was kind of amusing.
By far the most interesting moment was the tribute to the Forbidden City nightclub and one of the young women did a wardrobe change that malfunctioned. Some people on the street saw something they shouldn’t have seen.
Any advice for parade newbies?
Get there early – it’s 20 people deep in some spots. You may consider purchasing tickets in front of Macy's if you have family. That way, you can see all the acts and get your ears blown out by firecrackers. You can also see the actual performances that are broadcast by KTSF and KTVU.
Go to the KTVU site for basic information. Look at the map for spots where bands perform at Union Square and Chinatown, at the end of the route. A fun spot is in SoMa at 1st or Spear Street at the beginning of the parade and where you can see the contingents warming up about 20 minutes before they make it onto TV.
What are good food spots for celebrating? How will you celebrate?
Chinese New Year goes almost two weeks, like an endless Mardi Gras, starting at the end of January. We’re going to Betty Louie’s house two weeks before the parade. She’s the former owner of China Bazaar.
When my family was intact we’d have dinner at the Yet Wah in San Rafael, where they feature lion dancers on certain nights around the Lunar New Year. And you thought your restaurant was loud! It's your basic Cantonese menu there, although we know that it's good to include a dish of long noodles, a fish dish, and some chicken. Before we finish, the lion dancers are out, with drums and gongs, and we can't hear each other. Gotta feed those lions!
After the parade we go to Grand Café and have a crew dinner. In the last two years, we take a section of the lovely Bourbon Steak restaurant and tear it apart. We’ll have bites, bourbon and steak. That’s how we chill out after the parade.