“I see John Liu!” announced a kindergarten aged boy to his mother as the Chinese-American New York City Comptroller, and Flushing native, walked by with a small entourage carrying signs of his smiling face. “Happy New Year!” shouted out Mr. Liu as he waved to the crowd. “Happy New Year!” they all shouted back. He was quickly drowned out by the low collective drumming of the local chapter of the Self Help Innovative Senior Center who were on his heels. There was no time for dawdling. This was the Lunar New Year parade in Flushing’s Chinatown. And everyone wanted a piece of the moon pie.
By half past eleven on the sunny Saturday in mid-February in downtown Flushing, several local groups and associations had already made their way down Main Street carrying banners and wearing stoic expressions. This year’s parade was Flushing’s 17th and its most diverse with many non-Asian participants. The ladies of the Golf Association of Great New York wore striking floor-length satin pink dresses. A float sauntered past carrying mayoral hopeful He Gin Lee. But it wasn’t until the steady synth thumping of a familiar beat coming from a distant float that the parade really got started. The float contained a half-dozen Psy impersonators, dancing Gangnam Style all over the Murray Hill Merchant Association float like egg on a bowl of bibimbap, as Stephen Colbert would say. It may be popularly known as Chinese New Year, but the Koreans, who also share the Lunar calendar, were not going to be upstaged, not this year.
Starting in the 1970’s, Flushing saw a growing population of mainly Taiwanese immigrants moving out of Manhattan’s Chinatown. Today, an estimated 70,000 Chinese live in Flushing. It is often called New York’s “second Chinatown,” although some estimates rank Brooklyn’s Sunset Park as number two. Flushing’s Chinatown is more ethnically diverse than its Manhattan counterpart, with residents from Taiwan, mainland China, Hong Kong, and a small but steady Korean enclave.
As the K-pop receded, the lovely ladies of the F&T Group (which is re-developing a five-mile stretch of downtown Flushing) came into view in their long gowns and tiaras as they waved genially to the crowd. This was followed by one very energetic, dark-suited real estate agent on the Skyviewparc Luxury Condominiums float (studios starting at $375K). The Verizon team fired off confetti launchers, and the Home Depot crew handed out orange balloons.
The parade not only represented market competitors, but ideological ones as well. Among the marchers was the Chinese Anti-Cult World Alliance, a group that denounces the spiritual minority group Falun Gong. Following them were members of Falun Gong itself, who are convinced that the Chinese Anti-Cult World Alliance is secretly working for the Chinese Communist Party. Some Falun Gong are also involved in the local Quitting Communist Party Service Center, which aims to help Chinese immigrants swear off Communism. They too carried a banner in the parade. Tensions between all three groups are a common source of fodder for the local Chinese language media and is a Flushing version of the larger ideological battle raging on back in China.
But really, it was all about the dragons, and the lions too. Dragon and lion dances set to loud drum beats and colliding cymbals are believed to ward off the evil spirits. They came in all shapes and sizes. Feathery lion heads in yellow and shocking green carried by a single marcher with a handler carrying its draped body like a wedding veil. Lithe multi-person dragons with bodies like cartoon centipedes moved in unison along the pavement. The dragons snaked down Main Street and brushed past the barricades offering up their glittery serpentine bodies to the outstretched hands of the crowd, like Justin Bieber playing Toronto.
By quarter to one, several more dragons had swirled past the crowd and a tuba-clad marching band playing American standards had come and gone. An ambulance from the New York Queens Hospital decked out in lucky red lanterns rolled along, as the Caucasian EMT called out “Happy New Year” in Chinese to the delight of the crowd. The parade ended with a bang of firecrackers outside the Queens Crossing Mall. Welcome to the year of the snake. Time for some soup dumplings.
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