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12:25 a.m., Wed., Jan. 28, 1998
First Day of the Year of the Tiger - 1998

Happy New Year!

It's very quiet out now--much more so than on an Oakland weekend night. Tonight I spoke with my friend Clark, who had just returned to SF from a 2-week visit of his native Taiwan. I don't remember if it was he or I who brought up Chinese New Year, but he said that there was no celebration of it here. I doubted that.

As it turned out, later my stomach was feeling queasy, having been fed movie popcorn & a hotdog for dinner. So I went out to ABC Bakery, the very-late-night Chinese bakery & restaurant that a friend introduced me to in Oakland's Chinatown.

Just the ticket for a queasy stomach. There's quite a full house tonight. And on the large TV bolted near the ceiling, some Chinese TV special with some kind of live stage comedy sketch with two men dressed in traditional Chinese garments.

I order and eat my tasty soup and, when paying, ask the handsome young waiter if tonight is New Year's. "Yes," he says.

"Then Happy New Year," I offer.

I look at my watch and notice that it's 5 minutes to midnight. Right as I get up to leave, a large clique of Chinese young adults rise and go outside to the sidewalk in front of ABC. Then comes the crackle of Chinese firecrackers. I walk outside & see red shredded paper all over the sidewalk. "Hey boy," comes the semi-distant call of one of the Chinese girls.

As I walk around this nearly-abandoned Chinatown, surprise bursts of Chinese firecrackers break out from their locales, hidden all over the neighborhood. I hear the distant and near bursts, sometimes spy the ghosts of smoke rising from the recent deed.

I'm all smiles, a short-haired White Guy, alone, wandering through Chinatown as guerilla revellers release their assumed-to-be-nominally-outlawed gunpowdered glee in a neighborhood-wide game of pop-and-seek. A single cop car patrols by but does not stop down the street, even though the smoke from a recent burst wafts in evidence on left bank.

I love the Oakland Chinatown, with its mixture of Vietnamese and Chinese shops standing shoulder-to-shoulder. Cardboard cut-outs of Chinese tots, all dressed-up in Mandarin garb & making the Chinese gesture of respect, left hand grasping right fist. "Hog's heads, $2.50" announces a hand-drawn, marks-a-lot sign on a dark door. A new Dim Sum takeout place I haven't tried, lights still on. Many signs advising of closure for New Years until Jan. 30.

I love the density of words & symbols that I do not understand, perhaps in nostalgia for early childhood, when all neighborhoods were mysteriously foreign, filled with unpronounceable syllables and untranslatable characters.

* * *

A year or two later I am waiting to get my hair cut, in my regular barbershop, on 9th Street in Oakland's Chinatown. It's a damp, cool day in February, but there's clearly an air of impending celebration afoot. I hear the ting-tang and jangling of Chinese drums and bells coming from a couple doors down. The barber and his wife (I assume) don't seem to make much of it, not that I could tell much, since they speak to each other (and other customers) only in Cantonese.

A few minutes later the same sounds arise, but closer. This time one of the barbers goes out to the door and looks, as do I and another customer. There are a handful of boys: two playing drums, two small ones carrying the rear of a traditional Chinese dragon costume, and one holding up the fearsome head, with gnashing teeth. As they come to the barber shop, an older man, who seems to be heading up the entourage, exchanges a few words with the barber. I can't understand a word of Cantonese, but from what goes on, I gather that they are some type of private or public service, performing a ritual dance in every place of business in Chinatown for luck in the new year.

The dragon boy enters, followed by his tail-holders and musicians, and he dances around the shop for a couple of minutes. The barber shop having been properly blessed, they take their magic to the next shop, and the next.

Later, as I'm in the hair-cutting chair getting my trim, I can see them across the street, doing the honors at stores over there. Across the rain-sopped street, I can still hear the faint drums as they round the corner. When my barber clips the hair above my eyes and soft tumbleweeds cascade down my face, I close my eyes. Thus set, I leave them closed for the duration.

— David Saia

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