“Why are they playing salsa in the Chinese New Year parade?” a girl on Orchard Street asked her boyfriend. It’s a reasonable question, but it assumes that New York’s Chinese New Year parade is, well, Chinese. Which it is, up to a point. But it’s also a parade. That means that in the American tradition, anyone who can possibly find an excuse for being there will be.
Leading the parade was one of New York’s senators, Charles Schumer. In fact, Senator Schumer wasn’t just leading the parade, he was so far ahead of it that you could almost believe that he’d simply gone out for a stroll down East Broadway in his sash and been surprised to find a large noisy mob of Chinese lions coming up behind him. He walked behind his official car, pausing every so often to deliver an off-the-cuff speech of which the only audible phrase was ‘Chinese-American community’, repeated at regular intervals.
The parade proper arrived a few minutes later, led by a short skirmish line of rather weary-looking lions, followed in close order by four veterans from the Lt. R. B. Kimlau post of the American Legion, and two pretty girls in a scarlet VW Beetle. Behind them came the first of the floats, followed by a small bevy of women in red and white and a distinctly non-Chinese marching band.
The body of the procession was made up of a series of floats, some of which were distinctly lackluster and looked as if they had only shown up for the advertising opportunity. The rule of the day seemed to be that participation in the parade was open to anyone who’d ever met a Chinese person, while floats could be sponsored by any company that could find at least one vaguely Asian-looking employee somewhere on payroll. Some of the corporate floats were almost empty, staffed by a skeleton crew of junior members of the PR department and the token Asian, all grimly trying to appear festive at any price. The net effect was strangely dispiriting.
Behind the floats came more lions, a pair of fairly fine dragons, and a band of kids in orange from the US headquarters of the Shaolin Temple. One of the Shaolin boys seemed to be doing all the work. While his fellows seemed mostly content to shuffle along, grinning and flashing occasional peace signs at the crowd, he would suddenly break into a series of handsprings and high-kicks, whirling a chain around and under him, and hovering over the asphalt with no obvious means of support. It was easy to see who had actually been paying attention in ass-kicking class.
No truly American parade, of course, can be a parade without a few cars. Bringing up the rear of the parade was a line of Cadillacs, each equipped with a pretty Chinese girl who perched on the rear and waved regally to the crowd. The last in line was a handsome burgundy 1940 Cadillac Fleetwood convertible, driven by a pair of men who looked as if they might already have been in their teens when their car rolled off the assembly line. I’m sorry to say that the Fleetwood stalled crossing Division Street, and one of the men had to get out and tell the Bolivian folk dance troupe behind them to go round, while his co-driver fiddled under the hood.
After the Bolivians came one final corporate float, while at the very rear of the parade was a man wearing a furiously-colorful costume and what appeared to be a fur-covered morion, pushing a similarly-accoutred dog in a baby carriage. His connection to Chinese New Year must have been tenuous in the extreme, but his outfit was an instant hit with the crowd. I last saw him being pursued up Allen Street by a small posse of photographers.
Colorful though it is, I have to admit that New York’s parade can be a little disappointing. I’ve never seen anything here to match the sheer pageantry of the far smaller parade put on by my former neighbors in Paris, while the store-bought lion costumes and somewhat half-hearted ‘dancing’ don’t come close to the performances I once saw in a small town in Cambodia. Whether you blame it on too much corporate involvement, the sheer length of the parade route, or on New York’s ban on firecrackers, I can’t help feeling that the procession isn’t as intense as you might expect from a major city with a large and vibrant Asian community.