Chinese New Year: Building floats is a lifetime passion 

click to enlarge About 15 to 25 floats are built by East West, a company that uses a barn leased from the Port of San Francisco to work out of for the Chinese New Year Parade. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • About 15 to 25 floats are built by East West, a company that uses a barn leased from the Port of San Francisco to work out of for the Chinese New Year Parade.
The man and woman in charge of a warehouse at Pier 54, which they call the parade barn, always walk fast.

“We’ve got a clock ticking in tenths of a second,” said David Thomas, 67, master float builder for the Chinese New Year Parade taking place Saturday.

He wasn’t kidding.

A couple weeks ago, a digital clock on the door on the tool shed with the lettering, “Count Down To Parade Time!!!” was running down the time remaining, which at that moment was 16 days, 20 hours plus a few odd minutes and seconds.

This year, like for the past few of decades, Thomas’ float-building company, East West, will build 15 to 25 floats for the parade out of the barn that the Chinese Chamber of Commerce leases from the Port of San Francisco.

“I don’t know if it’s a good or a bad thing, but I basically drove out every other competitor or bought them out,” Thomas said, adding, “This is my third year of the sheep.”

In the past 36 years, Thomas has built a couple thousand floats.

Stephanie Mufson, 35, who is second in charge and being primed to take over his company next Chinese New Year, has built about 500 floats. Together, they run a tight ship of three regular artists and contractors who filter in and out of the picture. “We don’t want volunteers. They’re just a waste of our time and we can’t fire them,” said Thomas, who held a Starbucks cup with “Lord of Darkness” written on it.

Mufson, who admits to running around like a headless chicken for most of the day, is constantly teaching contract artists how to complete tasks, as well as calling them out when they make mistakes.

When a worker stepped outside of the protective plastic on a float bed painted yellow, Mufson told him: “Everything here is artwork, so when you step on something, it’s like stepping on a painting.”

The man apologized.

“That’s OK, you didn’t know, you just walked in the door,” she said, “but now you know.”

Mufson even critiqued the painting technique of her husband, Scott Franklin, 35, who was helping out. She took the brush and showed him how to paint with large strokes in one direction.

“Everything has to be very fast, you can’t take a lot of time on it,” Franklin said. “That makes things difficult that wouldn’t be that difficult.”

“No coloring outside the lines,” added Christopher Campbell, 40, a musician by trade who has done every float-building job at the barn except for Styrofoam sculpting.

  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
The Styrofoam sculpting is left to Yumei Hou, whom an organizer with the Chinese Chamber of Commerce discovered from seeing her figurines made of flour, clay and wood. The 62-year-old China native who moved to San Francisco in 2008 had not worked with Styrofoam and did not speak English, but the chamber found a translator and Thomas taught her to carve with a hot wire.

Now Thomas simply gives Hou a photo and she brings it to life. A sheep took her one day. A large ram — which shares the year with the sheep and goat — took her three days.

“He never says, ‘Can you cut this? Do you know how to do this?’ Because he knows I can do anything,” she said.

Ironically, Hou’s mastery has become a threat to Thomas he calls “creativity terrorism.”

“She kind of scares me. She’s better than me,” he said. “The hardest thing in the business is I can never have anyone better than me because when they walk [out the door] — and they do all the time — guess who finishes the job?”

Thomas himself got into float-building by accident. A kung fu teacher in San Jose in the early 1980s, he would wear a Chinese opera mask painted gold and wear Chinese costumes and sneak into The City’s parade as a performer because only Chinese and Chinatown natives were allowed at the time.

One year, a chamber organizer caught Thomas and took him to an office for a meeting. Instead of kicking him out, the chamber gave him one float, then three, then five, then all the floats to build.

Float building is an old man’s skill, according to Thomas, because most people start in their late 40s or early 50s. I think it takes that much time to incur the “man stuff,” he said — the courage to call up a truck for a Styrofoam delivery and if the job doesn’t get done properly, call it again the next day.

Having built countless parade figures that color the barn, and the image of San Francisco’s parades, Thomas is looking to give his company to the next generation come next Chinese New Year and move on to running a water taxi business.

Mufson, who started as a painter eight years ago and worked her way up the ladder, is Thomas’ seventh protege. The person he had been training for his job before Mufson decided she did not want to run the company.

“I’m hoping next year I can just sit and watch [Mufson] build the parade,” he said. “Then, I’m just going to walk out the door.”

About The Author

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong covers transportation, housing, and ethnic communities, among other topics, for the San Francisco Examiner. She covered City Hall as a fellow for the San Francisco Chronicle, night cops and courts for the San Antonio Express-News, general news for Spanish-language newspapers La Opinión and El Mensajero,... more
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