Chinese New Year: Gordon Chin has seen procession grow from humble beginnings 

click to enlarge Gordon Chin is a longtime Chinatown activist, he still lends his institutional knowledge to younger community organizers at the Chinatown Community Development Center. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • Gordon Chin is a longtime Chinatown activist, he still lends his institutional knowledge to younger community organizers at the Chinatown Community Development Center.
Chinese New Year’s Day changes every year, unlike the western calendar, but the date is easy to remember for Gordon Chin and his siblings.

A longtime Chinatown activist, Chin was born Feb. 11, 1948, the second day of Chinese New Year; his brother was born on Chinese New Year’s Day in 1947; and his sister was born on the fourth day of the new year in 1952.

“We’re all New Year babies,” Chin, 66, said. “My mom used to tell us when she was going to give birth to us at the old Chinese Hospital, how she could always hear the firecrackers outside because it was Chinese New Year. So the parade, the New Year’s festivities, have always had a very special place in my heart.”

Fittingly, Chin went on to oversee the logistics of the internationally renowned Chinese New Year Parade in San Francisco for a quarter century, up until this year.

Though Chin handed the torch to younger community organizers — as he did when he stepped down in 2011 from his role as executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center, a powerful housing nonprofit he founded — he still lends his institutional knowledge.

When he was only a few years old, Chin and his family moved from San Francisco to Oakland’s Chinatown, but he remembers going to The City every year to watch the grand parade and spending the night with one of his aunts. Those days, the parade centered around Grant Avenue.

Soon, the crowds, coming from all over the world, outgrew the community parade. The first major change was the route, which moved off narrow Grant Avenue in the 1970s to start in South of Market. There, it traveled down Market Street and snaked around to a finale in Chinatown.

The second change was when KTVU started its broadcasts in the 1990s, elevating the event to an international audience.

As the budget grew larger, so did the floats. It became quite the production.

“It’s gotten bigger, it’s gotten more inclusive,” Chin said. “And it’s really reflective of the growth in the community over the decades, from basically a neighborhood event in the 1940s to becoming a citywide event involving non-Chinese troops and encouraging participation from all associations.”

The parade isn’t the only celebration that has evolved. Chin recalls a carnival and arcade games in the alley Waverly Place where children would toss pingpong balls to win goldfish, and a small street fair at Portsmouth Square. Around the 1970s, these events also grew into the Grant Avenue flower market fair that signals the beginning of Chinese New Year and the community street fair that signals its end.

Chinese New Year is part of a chapter in Chin’s new book, “Building Community … Chinatown Style,” of memoirs and observations about the Asian-American community development movement in The City over the past half century. It is set to be published this spring.

“Art and culture are essential elements of building community — as important as open space and transportation, and those things we usually associate with community development,” he said. “As we take care of the problems, we need to celebrate the seeds of our community, and New Year’s festivities are sort of the touchstone every year to remind us of that importance.”

This year, Chin, a retired Duboce Triangle resident, still plans to lend a helping hand in parade organizing. But he will also have more time to sit back and watch.

“Every year, you get more volunteers and people stepping up to take more responsibility, and it gets a little easier,” he said. “I’m just one of probably thousands of volunteers over the years who enjoys working on the parade and other events. It’s like an annual reunion.”

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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