The San Francisco Chinese New Year Flower Fair

The scene on Grant Avenue | © Yoojin Shin, All Rights Reserved
The scene on Grant Avenue | © Yoojin Shin, All Rights Reserved
Photo of Yoojin Shin
8 February 2016

Every year, San Francisco’s Chinatown holds a weekend-long fair in preparations for the Chinese New Year—or the lunar New Year. This collection of festivities takes place the weekend before the lunar New Year, and in 2016, it has fallen on January 30th and 31st. Bustling with hundreds of thousands of residents and visitors, the fair is a place to purchase annual new year flowers and fresh produce. This year, it took place on two streets: on Grant Avenue from Clay to Broadway, and on Pacific Avenue from Kearny to Stockton. If you missed this year’s fair, plan a visit next year to experience a genuine taste of Chinese immigrant culture in San Francisco.

The typical produce offered at a tent | © Yoojin Shin, All Rights Reserved

The Flower Fair is a place of festivities. Countless tents are lined up along the two streets, bustling with vendors selling fresh fruit, flowers, and other decorative pieces. Thousands of Chinatown residents, each carrying bags filled with produce, move from vendor to vendor to examine their offerings, negotiate a price, and purchase.

Chinatown residents purchasing produce and walking along the street | © Yoojin Shin, All Rights Reserved

Flowers are one of the most important decorations used during Chinese New Years, and are the dominant theme of the fair. Some traditional favorites include daffodils, which symbolize prosperity; orchids, which symbolize abundance; chrysanthemums, which symbolize longevity and good luck; and plum blossoms, which symbolize strength and perseverance. Bamboos are also a popular sell, which symbolize luck.

A typical tent selling various flowers | © Yoojin Shin, All Rights Reserved

Red and gold are the predominant colors of the fair, as they symbolize the Chinese welcoming of the New Year. Red symbolizes joy, virtue, and truth – a color that scares away evil spirits and bad luck; gold symbolizes prosperity, wealth, and fortune – a color of material well-being. Combined, these two colors embody the wishes and hopes for the new year. Red and gold lanterns, ornaments, and tassels are abundant throughout the fair, carrying Chinese letters that symbolize peace, happiness, wealth, and luck. You can also buy these decorative pieces from many of the vendors that occupy the streets.

Vendor selling decorative pieces | © Yoojin Shin, All Rights Reserved

In addition to the fruits, flowers, and decorative pieces, you can also find various stores that sell Chinese barbecues, which hang various types of meat from their ceilings. Meat is a big part of the Chinese New Years festivities – pork, in particular, is an extremely popular choice of meat for New Years, as it symbolizes a well-fed year.

Meat store | © Yoojin Shin, All Rights Reserved

Near Grant Avenue and Washington Street, a stage is constructed to showcase various traditional Chinese performances. The performers are often local dance groups of Chinese school students, who put together a special show for this fair.

Dance performance taking place on stage | © Yoojin Shin, All Rights Reserved

Walking and exploring through the streets, you will often encounter a number of Chinese men who gather to play traditional Chinese instruments like the erhu, pipa, guqin, and suona. Though these performances are quite common throughout the year, it is always worth taking a brief stop to appreciate the music.

Eastern Bakery | © Yoojin Shin, All Rights Reserved

A journey through Chinatown is not complete without paying a visit to Eastern Bakery. Eastern Bakery is the oldest bakery in Chinatown with its own share of rich temporal history: it was established before the Great Depression, the construction of Bay Bridges, World War II, and many more historical events that shaped the development of San Francisco. It sells traditional Chinese baked goods that are both savory and sweet – if you have never tasted traditional Chinese baked goods before, you will be able to experience some unique ingredients and tastes that are not common in Western nor European pastries.

The board hanging inside Eastern Bakery that celebrates the visit of former President Bill Clinton | © Yoojin Shin, All Rights Reserved

The lunar New Year is, arguably, the most important holiday for Eastern Asian cultures that traditionally followed the lunar calendar. For the San Francisco’s Chinese population, as it is for many others, New Year is a time of celebration, remembrance, and hope. Taking a visit to the New Year Flower Fair is a great, and perhaps the most authentic, way to experience the lunar festivities in San Francisco.

By Yoojin Shin

Yoojin is an economics student at the University of California, Berkeley, in a constant pursuit of happiness and good vibes. Someday, she hopes to make a living out of thinking and writing about important social issues. Until then, she has made it her mission to chronicle every single boba places in the Bay Area. For snapshots of her explorations, follow her on Instagram @yoojinshin1.

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