Chinese New Year Flower Festival

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A fat pop! bursts through the crowd. A shower of confetti and curling metallic ribbon shivers and shimmers, alighting on heads and blanketing the pavement. A little boy clutches gleeful, greedy fistfuls of the streamers and dances madly about to the techno pop thrumming out of a nearby tent.

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I take a hunk of suckling pig from my plastic takeout container and bite through fat-crisp skin, unabashedly licking my greasy fingers clean. Having been bumped about in a sea of tiny but fierce Asian grandmothers, fighting for the attention of the cleaver-wielding men in grease-splotched aprons behind the counter, a napkin wasn’t even an afterthought. Walking and eating, I weave under tent awnings hanging with sparkly, doe-eyed goats, and crowded with people shuffling around plastic bins spilling over with red and gold foil cards. There are tents of massage chairs and tiny flat screen televisions playing ethereally-fuzzed Chinese music videos. Candy tents with crinkly purple and maroon bags of individually wrapped treats. Tents of tabletops lined with delicate pussy willow branches, and long, slender gladioli stems, crimson petals tucked in tight. I stop at a tent draped with gold foil crackers and fat coin purses and buy a small pinwheel strung with three tinkly bells. It whirs with a satisfying blur of metallic petals as I walk.

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Just off the main festival thoroughfare, on a raised stage flanked by too-loud speakers, young women wearing big smiles and pastel jackets and pants dance with ribbon-covered hoops. Nearby, teenage girls with cups of brightly-hued bubble tea grin widely next to enormous glitter-gold Chinese zodiac animals. A woman wanders the crowd carrying a poster that says “The Chinese Communist Party Is Satan” in both Chinese and English. While waiting to take a photo of my zodiac animal, the ox, a man holding a “Sin Brings God’s Wrath” sign tries to hand me a pamphlet.

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Turning up the street the crowd and tents thin out, and I wander into a small storefront papered red and gold. Sharp incense bites my nose. A pretty woman with long, black hair stands on tiptoe, unhooking an elaborately fringed lantern from the ceiling to show to customers. Next door, crates of oranges and overturned boxes stacked with leeks and bok choy line the sidewalk outside of a small corner grocery store. A dense, syrupy sweetness I can’t quite place hovers in the air. At a makeshift countertop spanning the grocery wall, a thin older man in a baseball hat and rubber-soled gloves hacks into a spiny, irregularly shaped fruit the size of a large cantaloupe. Prying apart the skin, he uses a plastic bag to scoop out slithery, pale yellow lobes of flesh. I tap the shoulder of the man watching the preparation of his fruit. “Is that durian?” The man nods his head vigorously, a big smile on his face. “Durian!”

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*

 Although the tall, white buckets at the flower tents have mostly emptied, save the few squashed, wet blooms clinging to their sides, and the shadows have crept up high on the buildings, the crowds are still thick and I have to squeeze by strollers and armloads of newspaper-wrapped flower bundles. Before leaving, I pass a bakery and stop to buy a lotus cake. Outside, an old man on a folding metal chair plays the erhu, its sweet melancholia mingling with the sparkling pop music and sharp crackle of snappers.

*

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The Chinese New Year Flower Fair is held every year in San Francisco’s Chinatown the weekend before Lunar New Year.

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