Greeting the Year of the Dragon OR The Horror of the Chinatown Parade

Last Monday was the first day of the New Year according to the Chinese calendar. The Chinese say it is the year of the dragon, which is a year highly desirable in their cultural beliefs. Chinese try to give birth to their children during this year and to accomplish a great amount of other heroic things.

Unfortunately to me, and most likely a good amount of other people walking on this Earth, I was not born in the year of the dragon. Mine is the year of the rabbit, and it came around last year. However, last year, my so-called “birth year,” I haven’t been able to cross something off my list I was highly motivated to do: Witness the Chinatown Parade!
To be honest with you, I didn’t even know too much about this parade. Not until my former Chinese coworker mentioned she would be attending it in the heart of Chinatown. Now last year also happened to be one of the coldest winters in the history of New York winters. Not the most ideal weather to be standing outside in the cold and freeze your hands off. Needless to say, I was not in the right mood to attend it in masses of snow because I knew it would be at least a few hours long.

Therefore, what I didn’t accomplish last year I tried to make up for this year. It happened to be that the great annual parade was just yesterday, about a week after the Chinese New Year had started. This time I took some company with me, better safe than sorry. A good thought this was from my side – as I was soon to find out.

Just like many other landmark parades in New York (read more here), the Chinatown procession attracts many people. Of course also a good amount of tourists, if not to say: The majority of bystanders are tourists.
My friend and I got there relatively early. Even though it was scheduled to start at 11:30 AM, when we exited the subway and made our way through the normal craziness of Canal Street vendors, people who don’t understand English, and other paradox situations, we couldn’t make out any real signifier to indicate the start of the colorful ceremony. A few barricades had been built up here and there on the streets. A few cops were standing around – some in groups, some by themselves, looking bored out of their minds.

We stopped at a street cart because my friend recommended trying some of the Chinese cakes (she calls them donuts) which were sold by the locals. I had never tried these before nor had I even thought about just buying them from these little carts, but they tasted surprisingly good. Somewhat like the waffles we have back home but then they are formed different. For a buck you can get 15 small balls of crisp waffle dough and munch on them. We happened to keep on walking until we hit the corner of Canal and Mott Street. By then it must have been 12 PM already. At that time, a crowd had already come together and made out an assembly of onlookers waiting for the parade. Here, indeed, more barricades had been built up. We stopped right in front of a Chinese bakery, which somehow reminded me of the one in Boston (read more here) and any pastry shop you can find in Koreatown. While we were anxiously awaiting a sign that the parade had already started, both of us took our turns to explore the inside of the bakery a bit more. I even went twice and bought first a scallion and green pea twist, then a pastry filled with egg cream inside. The price was unbeatable and both tasted very good. Not to mention they had been freshly made and were still warm from the oven.

Chinese Cakes
Chinese Bakery

Finally, as we were about to give up hope and continue our walk south, something came our way at 1 PM. At first we heard music approaching us, then we saw the first wagon: A dragon shaped car with Chinese people dancing in front of it in dragon masks. Overall, the parade was mixed. Most costumes were themed around the figure of the dragon, not surprisingly. Sometimes you saw the typical hideous banners of a cell phone provider such as Verizon or AT&T marking a car. And once we were puzzled because we saw a random group of African-Americans cheering and dancing on top of a wagon. After 30 minutes we had our fair share. We wanted to go with the parade and then make it out to the Brooklyn Bridge before heading back home. However, going with the marching and cheering people seemed simply impossible. By then the crowd had grown enormously. While an hour earlier we had still laughed at people becoming sour when others were pushing them out of their ways just to get past, we now had Karma on our side: When making the mistake and trying to turn into the overpopulated Canal St, we got helplessly stuck. All of a sudden a wool hat was swiping my face from the woman standing an inch in front of me while my friend was stuck next to two impatient Asians who wanted to get through no matter what. The parade all of a sudden became irrelevant. There was no forwards and no backwards. We were stuck, by all means. The crowd swayed us back and forth like flowers in the wind. Two Germans girls standing right next to us on the side and who hadn’t even meant to be in the middle of this were astonished at how the situation had changed within minutes. They weren’t the only ones. One minute we were trying to pass the corner, the next one we had a line of people piling up behind us.

Masses from the front....
... and in our backs!
While some people are still celebrating with cheap Asian wondersticks...
... others are trying to catch the parade.

The situation grew worse over the course of the next hour. That’s right! We were stuck in one and the same spot for an entire hour. From this stand point we admittedly had a better view of the parade then at the spot before. But no one was in the mood anymore to watch the singing and chanting Chinese people in the same costumes over and over again.

Children, old people, the rest of us: All squashed together right next to each other with hardly any air to breathe. Now I am no one to become easily claustrophobic. But the crowd that day almost made me hate my wish to see the parade. After 20 minutes had passed, a chanting went on: People ahead of us saw jumping over the barricades as the only possibility to get out of the mess. Of course no one wanted to infuriate the all-so-respected (and hated) NYPD (read more here). After some fruitless efforts to draw their attention to the bad situation by claiming a few people had fainted and needed their help, the FDNY rolled up. Without doing too much. The cops also basically just stood there and either did not get the situation or were oblivious to people who needed help. Possibly both.
So the crowd starting chanting in a chorus: Let us out, let us out, let us out, let us out! After 10 more minutes, they finally let a few small children and very old people go, together with their families. Now the masses were pushing from behind, maybe expecting to get out of there sooner if they were to put some pressure on the weak spots. Bad idea. I will never forget this old Asian woman who tried to force a person in front of her away by using her arm. The only thought I had at that time was: Hopefully she won’t break her bones. An Asian family next to me began to cry. Emotions were getting intense.

No way to escape!

We all feared a riot was about to start and I was a bit surprised to see no pepper spray had been used by the police. My friend said they wouldn’t dare use it because of the small children and the old people, and that was a good thing. Exactly 55 minutes after we had walked into this chaos we got out of it. A few cops had made their way into the crowd from the other side and were directing the people to go one way only. Some folks still tried to swim against the current and I can understand how others got mad at them. Eventually we were out. Safe and sound, two blocks and a fright later, somewhere on Canal Street, far far away from the parade that had become so meaningless.

The day was definitely an experience to us. But I am not sure I would try it out again. I recommend watching it somewhere else. Maybe Roosevelt Park was less crowded. Avoid the Canal Street area by all means next year, if you can!

Bye Bye Year of the Dragon!
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2 thoughts on “Greeting the Year of the Dragon OR The Horror of the Chinatown Parade

  1. I think I’m the year of the Ox. I guess the most recent was 2009. Ah well. That sounds like a crazy crowd to be in. I wouldn’t be too comfortable there either. At least it sounds like you got some good food though 🙂

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