Organizers of D.C. Chinese New Year parade aim for a bigger show

January 3, 2012

You have to strain a little to see it right now. You have to look past the McDonald’s and the Chipotle and the Regal cineplex, and you have to pretend it’s a Sunday afternoon in late January, and that the sidewalks are jammed with some 40,000 people, and that they have come to watch a parade.

“Here,” Hon-Yuen Wong says proudly. He gestures toward an expanse of pavement near the Chinatown arch. “Here is where the mayor would sit.” Here is where the car would drive past, carrying Miss Chinese American. A little farther down, Wong points out another landmark. Here is where the firecrackers would be set off, right in front of this Rita’s Water Ice, and this is where there could be a loading area for the lion dancers.

Wong is in his 60s, a slender, unassuming man. He’s a physician. Along with his son, he runs a practice in Rockville — family and emergency medicine; they work six days a week. When he is not doing that, he is doing this. He is the chairman of the Parade Committee of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of Washington, D.C.

He has a dream.

“We would like,” Wong says — and he knows this is a big dream, but one might as well dream big — “we want to make it like Macy’s.”


Rita Lee and Hon-Yuen Wong are spearheading efforts to make the Chinese New Year's Celebration in Chinatown better and bigger. (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)

For nearly 40 years, since its inception, Washington’s Chinese New Year parade has marched on a shoestring. Mom ’n’ pop. Dollar dreams on a dime budget for a city whose parade quotient is fairly low — Cherry Blossom, yes; Thanksgiving, no. The New Year parade had pageantry, firecrackers, crowds, all of it. But behind the scenes, putting on a parade is an exhausting business. “You need certified people to light the firecrackers,” Wong says, “and certified people to store the firecrackers, and more certified people to handle the firecrackers.” Last year, the entire budget for all of the pageantry was $23,000. The only performers to get paid were the high school marching band. The kids got free lunch.

This is one reason why, for the first time in its history, the Parade Committee of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association has decided to hire an ad agency. They have hired, in fact, the Ad Agency, a Washington outfit whose clients have included the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Capitol Hill Business Improvement District. They helped make D.C.’s Golden Triangle into the Golden Triangle. Wong is hoping that the Ad Agency can help them get sponsorships. Television cameras for the Jan. 29 event. Hype.

The Chinese population within the District has increased over recent years; it’s around 5,200 now, compared with about 3,700 in 2000. There are about 92,000 people of Chinese ancestry in the Washington metropolitan region. But Wong says there’s a perception of scatteredness — that Chinatown’s bloated rents have caused residents to create Chinaburbs in Virginia and Maryland, or outposts elsewhere in the District. In recent years, as the neighborhood has been overshadowed by Verizon Center, independent restaurants and markets closed and the likes of Starbucks and Corner Bakery opened, festooned with Chinese characters.

What the community needs, the parade committee says, is something that will awaken pride in the second- and third-generation Chinese Americans of Washington, that will make people aware of the community’s cultural and artistic presence in the city and preserve the neighborhood, which grew into its current identity after Chinese immigrants replaced the German immigrants who had been living in the area in the 1800s, as an important geographical landmark. What they need is a really good parade.

Marketing blitz

“Once you join, you’re in. No way out.” Like the mafia.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, a group of people with vested interest in the proceedings of the Chinese New Year parade gather around a big table at the back of Tony Cheng’s, an H Street restaurant, around a table that is groaning with platters of dumplings, egg rolls, vegetables, shrimp.

Wong is here, and so is Rita Lee, one of the committee’s senior members, who is compact and bouncy, with an authoritative presence. It is Lee who cheerfully explains the undeniable pull of the parade committee. Julie Koo, the executive director of the Mayor’s Office on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs, is also here; she has just been ushered into her seat by Tony Cheng, the eponymous restaurant owner who gallantly tells everyone at the table to order whatever they want. “Whatever you want!” he says. “Aaaanything!”

Debi Gasper is also here. Gasper — tall, thin, blonde — is the executive director of the Ad Agency. She has been tasked with readying the parade for its close-up. It has a Web site now, and on the site, prospective sponsors can select from packages ranging from Basic Sponsor ($500) to Platinum Dragon ($60,000). ”We’re doing press releases, social media,” Gasper says.

“We need to invite the mayor,” Lee says.

“We’ve already invited the mayor,” Gasper assures her.

“Did you send a letter?” Koo asks. Letters are the official way in which invitations are typically extended to the mayor.

“Also, the ANC commissioners,” Wong adds. “We promised we would invite them.”

The parade commission has talked about expanding its efforts before, but the timing never seemed quite right. They were waiting for the right year, for the right go-ahead from the CCBA. “This is the right year,” Lee says. “It’s the Year of the Dragon. The dragon symbolizes power. It’s the number one most important zodiac symbol.”

It’s going to be a big year. They have high hopes.

“Four lions?” Koo asks, trying to ascertain how many groups of lion dancers will be participating in the parade.

“Five lions,” Lee says.

“Five to six lions,” Wong says.

A capital draw

Everyone agrees that San Francisco’s New Year’s parade, with its 200-foot-long dragon, is the parade to aspire to. The San Francisco parade is regularly cited as the largest Chinese New Year celebration outside China. It’s sponsored by Southwest Airlines, and bleacher tickets cost $30 a pop.

“They have a lot of money to spend,” Wong sighs. (He’s not sure how much the D.C. parade and its accompanying campaign will cost this year, but says that it will be a worthwhile investment.) San Francisco also has a Chinese American community that makes up a much greater proportion of the population than Washington’s.

“But we have something they don’t have,” Wong says. “We are D.C. The capital. If you go to America and you don’t go to Washington, it will seem like you were never there at all.”

A few weeks after the parade meeting, Gasper sends an update. Utz and Verizon have signed on to sponsor the parade. The Washington Wizards have invited the parade’s lion dancers to perform and promote the event at a televised game against the Celtics.

It is looking to be a very good parade, ready to ring in the Chinese lunar year 4710 — the Year of the Dragon.

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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