Short women elbowed through stacks of neon flowers. Banners boasted the rejuvenating wonders of herbs, tea, hair dye: “No. 1 Selling Brand in U.S.A.”, “Prince of Peace, The Name You Can Trust!” Distorted pop vocals crackled and hummed from a far-off stereo. Children gazed up at their toy windmills, decorated with carton tigers or Dora the Explorer, black eyes shinning and mesmerized by the spinning, spinning.
This last weekend was Oakland Chinatown’s annual Lunar New Year “Bazaar.” Not quite a street festival, not quite a farmers market, and anything but the well-known San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade (ahem, the “Southwest Airlines Chinese New Year Parade”), the event captured Oakland’s Chinatown: non-glitzy, utilitarian, and not particularly concerned with outsiders.
I’ve been meaning to do a post about Oakland’s Chinatown for awhile. As its Chamber of Commerce website declares: “Oakland’s Chinatown is one of the most fun and authentic of the American Chinatowns. It is quite safe. It is not a line of t-shirt and postcard shops like much of other Chinatowns.” I recently tromped through San Francisco’s Chinatown with out-of-town relatives, which actually gave me a renewed appreciation for its lanterns, pagodas, skinny alleys and countless trinket stores. Growing up here, it’s easy to get blase about what remains alien and alluring for a lot of people. My cousins loved SF’s Chinatown, and I wouldn’t think of bringing them to Oakland’s—it would be totally uninteresting to tourists.
Oakland’s Chinatown isn’t glamorous; there’s no self-conscious gestures towards exoticism. It’s not even really a “Chinatown” as much as it is an “Asiantown,” filled with a good number of Southeast Asians (and thus, one of the best Vietnamese sandwich shops around). Still, the history of the neighborhood is Chinese—as evidenced by the bilingual street signs—and the attitude, well, that’s Chinese too. It’s not hostile by any means, it just doesn’t go out of its way to include outsiders. It reminds me of the sentiment Pico Iyer captured in his 1980s essay “The Door Swings both Ways.” A lot of the stores and markets don’t bother to translate signs. Despite one of its main thoroughfares being four lanes wide, double-parking is so rampant it still takes ten minutes to drive two blocks. People ignored crosswalks and traffic signals so much that the city eventually gave up and installed Oakland’s only diagonal crosswalks.
Dingy awnings, block construction and an eerily empty mall are part of the unexotic offerings of Oakland’s Chinatown. And, this last weekend, two of its main streets were closed off for what’s marketed as a Lunar New Year Bazaar, but what’s really a stock-up opportunity for locals. I ran into an old friend who was working the event, and her aunt helped illuminate my hazy understanding of New Years traditions, informed mostly by the annual dragon dance on the playground of my grade school, when we got to throw cabbage and eat those chewy candies covered in rice paper.
Aunt Kathy told me about the purpose of the market, which is to stock up on bright flowers to decorate the home with. Yellow mums and reedy stalks (whose English name we couldn’t figure out) are most popular for their bright color and longevity. People also bought up red envelopes, for money giving; what I didn’t know was that only single people receive envelopes (hint, hint). As opposed to Chinese celebrations, when people have a week off work to visit relatives and feast, American celebrations are more condensed—people usually gather at a relative’s house for a night, eat a ton, and exchange envelopes, candy and sugar-coated fruit. “Like Thanksgiving”—but with a lot more red.
Like most things in Chinese culture, the traditions of the New Year seem to all go back to “good luck.” “Why the colorful flowers?” “For happiness and good luck.” “What’s the significance of the long stalky flowers?” “They live long, don’t die. Bring good luck to the house.” “Why all the candy?” “It’s sweet, bring good luck.”
Oakland’s Chinatown doesn’t hold a New Year parade or celebration, just one big market for all your flower, herb, sunglasses, socks, DVD and good luck buying needs. A couple of other non-Asians milled through the crowd, not quite sure what to do with themselves or why they were there. Where were the food stalls? The ethnic trinkets and radio stations? Meh, it was Chinatown. This was their affair, and they weren’t gonna dress it up for anyone.
Photos by Theo Auer