Chinese New Year in San Francisco

Costumed Characters in the San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade
David Yu/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
  • 01 of 06

    Chinese New Year in San Francisco

    San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade
    ©2007 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

    The San Francisco Chinese New Year celebration is the largest outside of Asia. It's a lively festival with lots of events. To make it even more special, the holiday parade is one of the few surviving lighted night parades in the U.S., making it an event that draws visitors from many places. I recommend it as one of San Francisco's top festivals, well worth a weekend trip to enjoy the goings-on.

    Chinatown is especially photogenic at the new year. The lucky color red is everywhere and makes for excellent photos. Dragon and lion dancers may prowl the street to scare away evil spirits, and they make fun subjects - if you can endure the firecracker noise and confusion surrounding them.

    Other Chinese New Year Events in San Francisco

    Because Chinese New Year is a lunar festival, its date is determined by the moon's phases and changes every year. No matter what the official date is the parade always happens on a Saturday.

    The San Francisco Chinese New Year festivities kick off with the Flower Fair. The San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade is always on a Saturday and usually starts at 5:15 p.m. You'll find more details about watching the parade on the next page.

    How San Francisco Celebrates Chinese New Year

    The big event is the parade, but there are more things to do and see. Find them all at the end of this slideshow.

    Gung hay fat choy! (May prosperity be with you)
    Xin Nian Kuai Le! (Happy New Year)

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  • 02 of 06

    How to Enjoy the San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade

    Dragon in the San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade
    ©2007 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

    The piece de resistance of the San Francisco Chinese New Year celebration is the annual Chinese New Year Parade, featuring more than 100 floats, bands, and other participants.

    The parade takes off from Second and Market Streets, loops around Union Square on Geary, Powell and Post Streets and then runs up Kearny Street to Columbus. Be there about an hour early to get a space on the curb, but even late-comers can usually see just fine.

    If you'd rather sit than stand, paid grandstand seating is available along the parade route. Reserve in advance. They usually sell out.

    You can also enjoy the mini-parade that starts at 10:30 a.m. on the first day of the Flower Fair at California and Grant, following the original parade route down Grant Avenue.

    If you want to photograph the parade, it can be difficult. It starts late enough that much of it happens in the dark, and even the pros have trouble getting great shots. A couple of tricks will help you come out with better than average photos:

    • Go early. The floats and other participants set up on side streets near Market and Second Street an hour or more before the parade begins. You can walk around and get some nice photos when it's still light, and things are standing still.
    • Go to Second or Third and Market where the parade begins, so you can catch it before it gets too dark. Or at least, the first part of it.
    • You can get better photos of moving floats if you "pan" along with them, keeping the subject in the same spot in your viewfinder the entire time. That's also the hard part, and it's best to practice ahead of time.
    • If you have a DSLR, this is the time to take it with you. It will have better noise and faster shutter speeds than a mobile phone or pocket camera.
    • Take a video instead of a still photo, if your camera can do that well enough in dim light.
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  • 03 of 06

    Roar Along With the Lion Dancers at the Chinese New Year Parade

    Lion Dancers in the San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade
    Steve Rhodes/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    Lion dancers are a prominent part of any celebration in Chinatown and especially in the parade. They dance around like young cubs in the wild and get the crowd from seniors to children smiling from ear to ear.

    The costume is made up of a head and a fabric body. Two people perform the dance, with the one in front doing most of the fancy action, mimicking the movements of a lion's body. The other brings up the rear, so to speak. 

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  • 04 of 06

    Dragon Dancers at the Chinese New Year Parade

    Dragon Dancer Costumes for San Francisco's Chinese New Year Parade
    ©2007 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

    Chinese Dragons are believed to bring good luck. The longer the dragon, the more luck. If you arrive early enough, you can get an up close look at the beautifully decorated costumes--see how many feet you can count under each dragon! 

    The easy way to tell the difference between lion dancers and dragon dancers is by the number of people. Lion dance is done by two people while the dragon is long and requires many people to carry it. 

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  • 05 of 06

    Colorful Traditional Garb

    Costumed Characters in the San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade
    David Yu/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    The Chinese New Year Parade not only gives you a glimpse into the culture's festivities, but it also gives you a peek into some traditional fashion. The vibrant colors, interesting shapes, and attractive accessories will inspire you to add some color to your own wardrobe.

    If you want some Chinese clothing for yourself, Chinatown is your destination. Check out this visitor guide to Chinatown, so you know where to go to learn more about this small yet robust part of San Francisco.  

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  • 06 of 06

    More Chinese New Year Festivities in San Francisco

    Miss Chinatown U.S.A. Pageant
    David Yu/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    The parade isn't the only way to celebrate Chinese New Year. In fact, it often happens shortly after the official new year date. Other annual festivities include:

    • Chinese New Year Flower Fair takes place the weekend before the lunar new year so families can buy traditional plants and flowers to decorate their homes and give as gifts.​
    • Chinatown Community Street Fair is the same weekend as the San Francisco Chinese New Year parade and features traditional arts and performances.​
    • Miss Chinatown USA Pageant features a bevy of beautiful contestants who compete for the crown.​
    • Chinese New Year Run is a 5K/10K race that benefits the Chinatown YMCA.​
    • The Chinese New Year Treasure Hunt calls itself an "urban sleuthing adventure." Treasure-hunting teams must solve sixteen clues leading them on a tour of San Francisco's colorful past. It happens at the same time as the parade, which is what I recommend if you haven't seen it. If you're looking for something different to celebrate the New Year, try it.