Chinese New Year: Community welcomes Year of the Ram 

click to enlarge Food, ceremonies and the exchanging of money-filled red envelopes are part of the tradition of Chinese New Year in San Francisco. Top, Yao Nian Lee conducts a ceremony at the Lee On Dong Association. - GABRIELLE LURIE/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Gabrielle Lurie/Special to the S.F. Examiner
  • Food, ceremonies and the exchanging of money-filled red envelopes are part of the tradition of Chinese New Year in San Francisco. Top, Yao Nian Lee conducts a ceremony at the Lee On Dong Association.
It was just past 10:30 p.m. on Feb. 18 — Chinese New Year’s Eve — and Ding Lee rushed down the stairs of the Lee On Dong Association headquarters in Chinatown out onto reveler-laden Grant Avenue. Time to make the annual rounds.

Already on the avenue at the intersection of Washington Street, merrymakers had been lighting fireworks — ground, aerial and illegal — on the narrow corridor, setting off earsplitting booms and car alarms. No one stopped them. Lee, 65, rushed past unfazed.

“People walk around to the different associations to celebrate the last minute,” he said. “See the people on the street?”

Grant Avenue was deserted except for some people en route to the firecracker spectacle, until Lee made a brisk left onto Commercial Street. The alley, though quiet, was bustling with middle-aged and older Chinese.

Lee entered a building and walked up the narrow staircase to the third floor, the meeting place for the Feng Yee tong, or association. Several dozen Chinese, mostly men and seniors, packed the room.

“Just in time,” one of them told Lee.

The tong held a brief ceremony honoring their ancestors and family members on an altar with green and red wooden slabs representing those alive and deceased, respectively, then swarmed a large wooden table with trays full of drunken chicken, roast pork, a vegetable and glass noodles dish called jai, sesame dessert balls and red and gold wrapper good-luck candies. After a few bites, they passed out money-stuffed red envelopes called lai see and hurried out of the room, some taking oranges, which sound like “wealth” in Chinese.

It was off to the next tong.

click to enlarge GABRIELLE LURIE/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Gabrielle Lurie/Special to the S.F. Examiner
Lee, joined by Mel Lee, 70, of the same Lee family tong they were headed to, followed the crowd out of the alley back to Grant Avenue and turned left on Clay Street and right on Stockton Street past Washington Street.

“I used to walk around like this every year with my kids, but they’re 34 and 32 now,” Ding Lee said.

They entered a building on Stockton Street and went up another flight of stairs into the Lee Sing Yee tong, the largest Lee family association branch, similarly set up with a table full of food in front of an altar and rows of chairs.

At 10:59 p.m., Zhong Wei, 56, the designated emcee, read out loud in the Taishan dialect all the motions of the ceremony offering the bounties to the ancestors. The front row of men, following Wei’s directions, stood up and bowed, held lit incense sticks and bowed three times, offered fake money, held small wine-filled cups and bowed another three times, then, joined by everyone else, bowed three last times and clapped in celebration.

Women began distributing pre-prepared cups with black sesame paste-filled rice balls in red bean soup to all present. One man appeared hungry for more.

“It’s once a year only,” Wei said, grabbing the man’s empty cup and refilling it with dessert.

With his bare hands, another man picked up a large piece of roast pork and chopped it into pieces to serve the association members.

click to enlarge GABRIELLE LURIE/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Gabrielle Lurie/Special to the S.F. Examiner
“The tradition is to use a whole pig, but we just got a small piece,” Mel Lee said as the man on the chopping board removed a good-luck candy that had been stuffed in a whole chicken’s beak and sliced it into pieces.

Then it was time for the final destination of the night.

“Tonight is fun,” Ding Lee said as he and Mel Lee walked back to Grant Avenue. “Tomorrow is serious.”

The largest crowd yet gathered at the Lee On Dong Association headquarters on the fourth floor, a bigger space with an enormous altar. At two minutes to midnight, an incessant stream of firecrackers went off outside, meant to scare away the evil spirits for the new year.

“That’s nothing,” said Peter Lee, an association member and executive corporate manager of the nearby Portsmouth Square Garage.

“In the old days, they fired the real ones,” he said, making out a gun with his hand.

At 12 a.m. sharp, Xiong Li, chief of staff for the headquarters, began the ceremony through the sound storm. On cue, one association member stepped out onto the balcony and lit more firecrackers. When the ritual of incense lighting for the ancestors and bowing for a few minutes ended, members did not eat the chicken, fish and jai before the altar.

Instead, they made their way to the second-floor clubhouse, set up with seven large round tables and chairs for the New Year’s dinner of chicken soup, jai, chicken, barbecue pork, beef ribs, root dishes, olives and white rice.

One of the youngest attendees, Michael Lee, 34, sat at a table with his mother. “This is my third dinner tonight,” he said, adding, “it’s a reason for the older people to stay out late. If not, they would be in bed already.”

The Lee On Dong Association is the only one in Chinatown that hosts a sit-down New Year’s dinner.

“Others try, but they do not get enough attendees,” Mel Lee said.

Within half an hour, everyone had cleared out and some members began rolling away the big table tops.

For Huan Cheng Li, 55, president of association headquarters, the night had been nothing out of the ordinary.

“Every year it’s the same thing,” he laughed. “It’s the New Year. I want everyone to be happy.”

About The Author

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong

Bio:
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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