History of Chinatown’s New Year’s Community Street Fair

by Rev. Norman Fong

February 19, 2019

norman fong

In 1990, I remember sitting at a restaurant with members of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce (including Rose Pak) and Gordon Chin (then Executive Director of Chinatown CDC) where we came up with the idea of creating a Community Street Fair to add on to the parade. Since so many people come to Chinatown that day, why not add a street fair all weekend long to come and enjoy Chinatown. We didn’t have a lot of money back then to hire police and companies to set up all the street fair booths and tables. The beginnings of the Street Fair was very humble with mostly volunteers from the community to set things up and be our own security.

Looking back, it really was a street fair built by and for the community! Besides the Chinese Chamber staff and volunteers, my job was to recruit another 50-60 volunteers who would act as security for the street fair and also set up and later take down all those fair booths. Most of the volunteers in the very beginning were my relatives and closest friends from the Presbyterian Church in Chinatown, Cameron House, Chinatown CDC… and then we added volunteers from SF Pre-trial diversion, Chinese Progressive Association, students from SF State University…

chinatown street fair sf

chinatown street fair sf

However, for a few of us, one of the hardest jobs that the Chinese Chamber volunteers and I had was to stay up all night to protect the street fair booths from being vandalized or getting stolen. I remember my church friends and I staying up all night using a BBQ Grill to cook Siu Yeh and to keep warm and then try to stay up the next day for the two-day street fair! Imagine not sleeping much (except for a few short hour naps) from Friday Night to Sunday night. It really was a labor of love for the community and exhausting!

On our 3rd Community Street Fair, something happened that I’ll never forget and I’m not sure if the community remembers. My good friend Yvonne Lee was with the National Chinese American Citizens Alliance (CACA) said to me – “Norman, you are going to get a call from President Bill Clinton wishing all the best to Chinatown at the Street Fair. Then you will hit a big Chinese Gong on stage for President Clinton’s inauguration. It will be televised across the country!” I couldn’t believe it. Yvonne explained that when Bill Clinton gets sworn in as President, eight different locations from around the country would be highlighted. CHINATOWN WAS CHOSEN as one of those eight! Hurrah!

chinatown street fair sf

chinatown street fair sf

On Feb 23-24, next weekend – I hope everyone comes to our Community Street Fair. It’s a lot bigger and better now. The community groups have booths along with small businesses and of course, more corporations have joined too to offer free items to pass out. There may be long lines though to get those free giveaways, but the Community Loves it. Today, what I am most happy about is that a lot more YOUTH from high schools and the community do the security as well and stand on all the corners and of course, a lot more police than ever before. The Chinese Chamber staff and volunteers coordinate it all now and Chinatown CDC coordinates the volunteers for the entertainment stage. Of course, my band – Jest Jammin’ plays every year on the afternoon of the Parade (Saturday Feb 23). I love it! At the community fair, you’ll get great entertainment from acrobats, a magician, Chinese Opera and of course, lion dancing and martial arts groups! Bring your family to take pictures with the giant puppets too! About 500,000 people join us during the street fairs plus a lot more from all over the world come join us in the evening Chinese New Year Parade. The Chinese Chamber also added the Flower Fair years ago too which also needs volunteers. We copied it from the Hong Kong annual Flower Fair at Victoria Park.

chinatown street fair sf

It takes a lot of the community to volunteer to make the Chinese New Year Community Street Fair work. Each year – it gets better and better. Be super nice to all the youth and adults wearing those street fair jackets. They are community heroes too. THANKS TO ALL THE VOLUNTEERS FOR BOTH THE PARADE & THE STREET FAIRS!

Originally published in Sing Tao Daily on February 17, 2019

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