February 5th marks the start of Chinese New Year 2019, and the onset of the agricultural season in China. In China, this is probably the most important holiday of the year — a time for families to get together and indulge in 15 days of parades, fireworks, timeless rituals, and of course, lots of feasting.
For the Chinese community in San Francisco — and the hundreds of thousands of people that flock to the city around this time — the start of the new Lunar year means participating in the traditional Chinese New Year Parade, the cultural immersion that is the Chinatown Street Fair, and…. dim sum beer brunch?
Whatever your inclinations, if you’re looking for ways to bring in the Year of the Pig, this is the guide for you.
I want to:
- Know about origins of Chinese New Year in San Francisco
- Figure out where to eat traditional Chinese New Year food
- Try my hand at a traditional recipe
- Learn more about the various Chinese New Year events in San Francisco
The History of Chinese New Year in San Francisco
Let us take you back in time to 1847, to a sleepy little village called Yerba Buena. Nestled between the Presidio of San Francisco and the Mission San Francisco de Asis, the settlement was originally intended as a trading post for the merchant and trading ships coming in to the San Francisco Bay.
Fast forward two years, and the population of the tiny village had swelled from a few hundred, to over 50,000. The reason? Gold! The discovery of gold and the ensuing California gold rush attracted fortune seekers from all over the world — chief among them were immigrants from China, who came to work in the mines and on the railroads that were then being laid.
The Chinese immigrants brought their cultural traditions with them and the very first Chinese New Year celebrations in San Francisco took place in 1851. The now famous San Francisco Chinese New Year parade first took place in the 1860s and was, for an immigrant community that had long faced discrimination and exclusion, a way to demystify their culture to the other residents of the area.
The New Year parade isn’t a custom in China and, much like the fortune cookie or chop suey, was an entirely made up concept that represented the melding of two cultures. Not only did it help to de-exotify Chinatown, the loud and colorful New Year celebrations were a great way to promote tourism.
Today, the San Francisco Chinese New Year Festival and Parade is the largest celebration of its kind in the world.
Did you know? Chinese New Year myths and facts
- According to one legend, there was a monster named Nian (年). It would come about every New Year’s Eve. Most people would hide in their homes. But one boy was brave enough to fight him off using firecrackers. The next day, people celebrated their survival by setting off even more firecrackers. That’s why setting off fireworks is now an integral part of the celebrations.
- In order to deal with nosy relatives, some desperate singles resort to hire a fake boyfriend or girlfriend to take home.
- Showering isn’t allowed New Year’s Day, along with sweeping and throwing out garbage. This is to make sure you don’t clean away the good luck!
- Children are given gifts of red envelopes filled with money. This money is supposed to help transfer fortune from the elders to the kids. They can also be given between bosses and employees, co-workers, and friends.
Chinese New Year Traditions
The Chinese New Year is steeped in symbolism and meaning — traditionally, each day is celebrated differently. The first day is for paying respects to family elders and abstaining from meat, the fifth day is for dumpling making, and the last day is the Lantern Festival, where people celebrate by making and eating tang yuan (sweet rice balls filled with a variety of fillings, including red bean, sesame paste, or ground peanuts).
The common link for each of the 15 days of New Year celebrations is, perhaps unsurprisingly, food: the half-month is filled with an abundance of dishes, with specific foods symbolizing happiness, prosperity, health and the like.
For instance, whole animals — usually fish, poultry, or an entire pig — are common and symbolic of unity within the family. Similarly dumplings, which are often shaped like gold ingots, are symbols of wealth and prosperity.
The Luckiest Foods Of Chinese New Year
Traditional Chinese New Year dishes are steeped in meaning – here’s a guide to what they mean and where you can find them in the Bay Area.
(click on the upper right-hand corner to view the full map and list of restaurants)
- Rice cakes: rice cakes can be either sweet (stuffed with red bean paste) or savory, although most people in the U.S. are more familiar with the savory version. Sweet rice cakes begin appearing in Chinese supermarkets around the New Year and are symbolic of increasing prosperity. You can find sweet rice cakes at Good Mong Kok Bakery in Chinatown.
- Poultry: whole chicken or duck, with head and feet still attached, are sold by the dozen during New Year festivities. The carcass is air-dried until the skin is like completely dry, and is then glazed with sugar, based on a traditional Cantonese method of preparation. Walk the winding streets of Chinatown and you’ll see numerous shop windows displaying whole chicken and duck. You could buy a whole animal to cook at home, or head over to Cheung Hing in the Outer Sunset.
- Shrimp: the word for shrimp in Cantonese is ha, which sounds like laughing, so eating shrimp during the Lunar New Year is symbolic of inviting in happiness. Your best bets for great shrimp? Shrimp Siu Mai at Dim Sum Club or the shrimp stuffed eggplant at Ton Kiang.
- Noodles: noodles are a symbol of longevity. The longer the noodle, the longer you’re thought to remain prosperous, so the noodles are often served uncut in order to preserve their length. Do yourself a favor and go on a noodle tour of the Bay Area — Spices 3 in Oakland should be one of your first spots, followed by Huangcheng Noodle House, Wild Ginger, Shinry Lamian, and Classic Guilin Rice Noodles.
- Sweet rice balls: sweet stuffed rice balls, or tang yuan, are usually eaten during the last day of the celebrations. The roundness of the rice ball (with a texture very similar to mochi), is a symbol of harmony within the family. These are harder to find than the other dishes, but try your luck at Shanghai Family Cuisine or Ping’s Bistro. And if you don’t feel like hunting them down, try your hand at making them yourself with the recipe below!
- Dumplings: the shape of dumplings ( are reminiscent of ingots, which personify wealth. They’re the hallmark of the fifth day of the Chinese New Year, and according to popular legend, the more dumplings you eat during the New Year, the more money you can expect to make in the upcoming lunar cycle. San Francisco has no shortage of dumpling places. To sample just a few of the many, make your way to: Old Mandarin Islamic Restaurant, Yuanbao Jiaozi, City View, and Dumpling Kitchen.
A traditional Chinese New Year recipe
Tang yuan, or sweet rice balls, are the month’s hallmark dessert and, if the spirit of the Pig is truly in you this year, you might even want to try your hand at making your own.
Traditionally, tang yuan dough is made with glutinous rice powder, water, and pork fat but…not everyone is down for that. For those of you who don’t have a hunk of pork fat on hand (or just prefer to abstain), here’s a simple version suitable for all diets.
How to make sweet rice balls (tang yuan)
Prep time: 40 mins
Cook time: 10 mins
For the filling:
2.8oz black sesame seeds or peanuts (depending on what you want your filling to be)
2.5 tbsp sugar
1oz butter, softened but not melted
For the wrapper:
4.5oz glutinous rice flour
3 tbsp boiling water
4 tbsp room temperature water
- Prepare the filling: Toast black sesame seeds (or peanuts) in a frying pan over low heat. In a food processor, grind cooled black sesame seeds (or peanuts) and sugar until they turn into a paste. Add butter and mix to combine, then keep refrigerated until the mixture is firm enough to handle. Divide into 20 portions and shape each piece into a ball. Put them back in the fridge while you prepare the dough.
- Make the dough: In a mixing bowl, pour hot water into glutinous rice flour while stirring with a spatula — make sure there are no pockets of dry flour that remain. Add room temperature water little by little, and knead the mixture with your hands until a soft dough is formed. Divide and shape the dough into 20 balls.
- Assemble Tang Yuan: Flatten a piece of dough into a flat round with your fingers and place a ball of filling in the middle. Gently push the wrapper upwards around the filling, and press gently with your fingers until the filling is completely encased in the wrapper*.
- Cook Tang Yuan: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Gently slide in the tang yuan**. When they start to float on the surface, cook for a further minute and then ladle them into a dish to serve. Serve the tang yuan warm, with or without a little of the cooking water.
*Unlike dough made of wheat flour, the dough made of glutinous rice flour isn’t very elastic. It may crack during the assembling process (especially if it’s not soft enough). If cracks appear, wet the broken part with a tiny layer of water then rub gently to reseal.
** Cook tang yuan in batches. They will expand as they cook, so make sure the pot isn’t too crowded.
Where to Celebrate Chinese New Year In San Francisco
San Francisco offers up two and half weeks of events to help you celebrate Chinese New Year.
Whether you want to check out the family-friendly Chinese New Year Parade, take in some traditional Chinese art, or just chow down on beer and dumplings, there’s an event for you.
Traditional Chinese New Year events
When: February 23, 2019, 5:00 p.m. to 8 pm.
Where: Starts at 2nd and Market and goes all around Union Square.
- The two sets of bleachers along the route provide a good view of the parade and a guaranteed place to sit down (tickets are $35 each)
- Dress warmly, and bring water and snacks
- If you can, stay till the end, because you’ll be treated to the sight of the Golden Dragon. The huge dragon is all lit up, over 200 feet long, and carried by 100 dragon dancers; this is the Grand Finale of the parade
When: February 2, 2019, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and February 3, 2019: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Where: along Grant Avenue (Clay to Broadway), and on Pacific, Jackson and Washington Streets (between Stockton and Kearny).
A pretty tradition where the city is filled with flowers, fruit trees, and fruit for sale. Chinese tradition associates certain flowers and fruits with good luck, so you’ll see a ton of Chinese families making purchases to decorate their homes and invite in luck and prosperity.
When: February 23, 2019, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and February 24, 2019, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Where: Grant Avenue, (California Street to Broadway), and Sacramento, Washington, Jackson and Pacific Streets (Stockton to Kearny).
A chance to immerse yourself in some elements of Chinese culture, the fair offers music, acrobatics, puppet shoes, activities like lantern making, and lots of Chinese snacks. A fun event but be prepared for tons of people who aren’t afraid to (literally) push you around.
Other ways to get into the Lunar New Year spirit
- Asian Art Museum: Join the Asian Art Museum on February 17 to bring in the new year dancing, storytelling, and calligraphy. Admission is free with the purchase of museum entrance.
- San Francisco Symphony: Celebrate the Lunar New Year with style at the San Francisco Symphony’s concert and dinner event on February 16. The concert is at 5 p.m. and will be followed by a formal dinner at 7 p.m. Dinner packages can be purchased separately.
- Bay Area Discovery Museum: The Sausalito Bay Area Discovery Museum’s celebrations on February 18 include lion dancers and kung fu demonstrations. Visit their website for a detailed schedule and ticket information.
- California Academy of Sciences: On February. 21, the California Academy of Sciences’ Nightlife event will delve into Lunar traditions and the secret life of pigs (Nightlife is a weekly event with a rotating theme — plus there’s always a bar.)
- SF Beer Week: Probably the least traditional of all the events, SF Beer Week will be hosting a dim sum and beer brunch on February 2.
- Chinese Historical Society of America: Visit the Chinese Historical Society of America for free on February 23 and take part in their day of family-friendly activities, including live music and performances.