The Lunar New Year Parade Unpacked

What happens behind the scenes of the vibrant celebration

A 10-member marching group dropped a paper banner right before entering Chinatown’s Lunar New Year parade on the corner of Canal and Hester Street Sunday afternoon. A man in a blue jacket swooped in, disrupting the flow of red and gold, to pick it up before the group moved along the route of the parade towards East Broadway.

Hoi Ming Au helping members of the Brooklyn On Fun Association pick up their banner. Ero Partsakoulaki/NYCity Lens

The man in the blue jacket, Hoi Ming Au, stayed back at the parade’s starting point. It’s his job to make sure the show would go on, no matter what. About 70,000 people participated in the 20th parade of the Chinese new year celebration in New York City on Sunday, more than the last few years, and all of those that marched met Au before they stepped off to join the parade. With over 450,000 Chinese Americans living in New York City, the Big Apple is home to the largest Chinese population outside of Asia and the celebration of such a big event takes months of preparation.

“I couldn’t do this alone and I’m happy we made this a success again this year,” said Hoi Ming Au, the president of Better Chinatown, the society that runs the Lunar New Year Parade in New York City, as the parade was about to end.

Ero Partsakoulaki/NYCity Lens

Au may be diplomatic, but truth be told, he almost single handedly keeps things on an even keel. Throughout the parade that lasted for two and a half hours, he yelled, sweated and didn’t stop running up and down the streets. Drums and gongs overpowered his voice, he was hit by older women twirling fans on floats and young men hidden behind bobble-headed costumes, but he managed to coordinate the lineup of about 70 parade floats like an experienced maestro.

Before running up Hester Street to deal with some traffic, he asked his colleague, Toni Au, to tell NYCity Lens more about what happens backstage at the parade. Toni said that last year 50,000 people took part in the parade. This year, the crowd size was 40 percent bigger. Au thinks the sunny weather—with temperatures in the upper 30s—and the timing – the same weekend as the Presidents’ Day holiday —both contributed to the bigger turnout. This year is also the “Year of the Pig,” the Chinese zodiac sign of 2019, which is traditionally met with good cheer.

Ero Partsakoulaki/NYCity Lens

“The pig symbolizes happiness and the joy of getting together which is an extra reason to celebrate,” said Toni Au.

He is one of the 30 members of the organizing committee that has been working since September to get ready for this day. As many as 500 volunteers, many of them high school students, helped keep the atmosphere festive, offering little American and Chinese flags, and the traditional lucky red envelopes to people in the crowd. About 10 others updated each other about the parade’s progress through walkie talkies continuously.

Ero Partsakoulaki/ NYCity Lens

Although the organizers do their best for the day to pass smoothly, the participants often have to wait for up to two hours before marching. This year was not any different, but participants have their own rituals to pass the time and don’t seem to be bothered by the wait.

Ero Partsakoulaki/NYCity Lens

The ladies of the Taishan Friendship Association New York, for example, did not stop dancing and singing during their two-hour wait at the corner of Canal and Hester. Many of them in their 50s wore long blue shiny dresses and held bouquets of colorful plastic flowers in each hand. One of them hit extremely high notes as she sang along to the rhythm of a Chinese song coming out of the speaker of a passing float. On the float, a singer with a perfect up-do hairstyle wearing a gown was giving her all to the performance.

“We woke up very early today, around 7 a.m.,” said Choi Chan, one of the group’s leaders, dressed in an austere black suit. “We had breakfast all together at a restaurant with Shanghai cuisine on Canal Street and then we will go back there for lunch after the parade. Not every group does this, but we always gather together before and after.”

Ero Partsakoulaki/NYCity Lens

Every year there are dragons and beauty queens, expensive cars and politicians, lion dances and corporate floats, drummers and dancers and scores of very flexible children performing martial arts. While some costumes are simple, others are dazzlingly lamé, but many of the outfits have traveled all the way from China to Chinatown.

Ero Partsakoulaki/NYCity Lens

While cleaning her fuchsia dress from confetti that filled the air, Carrie Chen, said that she had to order her costume from China. She said that a maxi dress with floral embroidery and linear traditional design like the one she was wearing could cost around 700 Chinese yuan, which is about $88.

“Happy New Year!” she added.

Ero Partsakoulaki/NYCity Lens

The parade started at 1 p.m. sharply and by 2:45 p.m. the cleaning service had arrived already. The ladies in blue of the Taishan Friendship Association were on their way to lunch, the merchants of Canal Street were wiping their stores’ entrances, and members of the parade staff, wearing fluorescent green vests, were blowing confetti off the pavements.

As one of the staff was about to mount one of the four big cleaning vehicles she stared at a pile of empty confetti poppers. “You guys did a good job,” she muttered to herself.

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