The City That Was: Weird Times at the Chinatown New Year’s Parade
In The City That Was, Bohemian Archivist P Segal tells a weekly story of what you all missed: the days when artists, writers, musicians, and unemployed visionaries were playing hard in the city’s streets and paying the rent working part time.
Chinese New Year always reminds me of the only year when I was in the Chinatown New Year’s Parade. It is mostly memorable because I survived it, and there were moments when I fully expected to die of something en route.
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I ended up on a float in the parade that year shortly after I escaped my ostensible education at UCLA and returned to San Francisco. I asked my oldest friend, when I got back, if she could recommend someone to cut my hair. “Oh, yeah,” she said, and she took me to this place:
Baldwin-Rosendo was in a basement on Commercial Alley in Chinatown. You opened the door and went down a short, steep flight of stairs, expecting concrete and the smell of rotting vegetables. Instead there were polished wood floors, soft lighting, antique Chinese furniture, mirrors to make us infinite, and elegant floral displays in priceless vases. An elderly Chinese woman in traditional dress, with one gold tooth, placidly did people’s nails.
My friend introduced me to James Baldwin and Juan Rosendo, who ran a salon unlike anything I had ever seen before, and over the years, James would become a mentor and amazing friend. The son of a diplomat, James grew up in Hong Kong, but went to American schools. His nanny, who looked like the manicurist, taught him to speak Chinese, and so he was able to make friends with a lot of the non-English speaking people in the neighborhood.
One January, James told me that he’d been asked to have a float in the parade that year, and he was putting together The Float of a Thousand Beauties. He was asking all his clients to come dressed in Chinese drag and ride the float. So we all went out to the various tourist shops and got faux silk things to wear.
We had to arrive early, the day of the parade, to get situated. Our float was a three-tiered thing, with a single place on the top tier for one person. I ended up on the second tier, right below the top spot. After we had taken our places, the group preceding us took theirs: a few dozen adorable Chinese kids with tiny little xylophones. Moments before we launched, the crowning beauty of our float climbed to her perch, and a minute later, a large basket was handed up to the top.
In those years, the parade went down Grant Avenue, like the photo above, not through some big, safe route that made things less crowded. The various floats started down the street, and finally, the kids before us started moving forward, playing the “It’s a Small World” song on their xylophones. Then it was The Float of a Thousand Beauties, lurching our way through wall-to-wall people.
About a block into the parade, a group of little boys started slipping through the crowd alongside our float, throwing firecrackers at the top. After a while, I wondered what they were throwing them at and turned around. I looked up into the jaws of a gigantic, enraged snake, snapping wildly at the firecrackers bursting right over my head.
I’m not a fearful person. I’ve been a freelance writer for a long time, for heaven’s sake, which is not a profession for the faint of heart. I have friends like The Chris Radcliffe and John Law, who talk me into doing things I am in no way qualified to attempt. I also have bad habits, and I’m recovering from a penchant for interesting young men. I’ve led a dangerous life. But I am terrified of snakes, especially infuriated ones threatening to eat my head.
To make matters worse, the kiddie xylophone band knew one song, which they played over and over and over during the hours the parade inched along. I was unsure which would kill me first: terror and heart-stoppage, being eaten or strangled by a snake, attempting a dive off the float, being set aflame by firecrackers, or madness at the ping-ping-ping-PING-PING of “It’s a Small World After All.”
Obviously, none of the above killed me, I survived to write again, and this time to wish you all a very happy lunar new year!
The photo of the parade, when it was on Grant Avenue, is by David Yu. I took the photo of Baldwin-Rosendo, and I’m also responsible for the splot of red wine I got on it.