Primary Source: Lunar New Year in 19th Century San Francisco

Chinese New Year in San Francisco, 1875. (University of California)

It is the season of the Lunar New Year, the largest holiday celebrated by much of the Asian continent and its diaspora. In the middle of the 19th century, a large contingent of that diaspora was in California, clustered in San Francisco’s (and other frontier towns’) Chinatowns, and spread out among the hills of gold country. The influx of Chinese only increased as the 1850s and ’60s wore on, first to try their hands at gold mining, then to build the railroads through the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Wherever they were, Chinese immigrants living in Gam Saan (California, or “Gold Mountain”) celebrated their friends and their family, and voiced their hope for good fortune, long life, and for many of them, to return home. Nowhere was that more true than in the city by the Golden Gate.

A New Year’s parade, with the dragon at the center, proceeds down Stockton Street, c. 1882. (OpenSFHistory)

A newspaper informs its readers what they are witnessing. (1855)

San Francisco in the gold rush was a melting pot of cultures, all come in search of the precious, glittering metal. As New York Tribune journalist Bayard Taylor wrote when he visited the town in 1849, “The streets were full of people, hurrying to and fro, and of as diverse and bizarre a character as the houses: Yankees of every possible variety, native Californians in sarapes and sombreros, Chilians, Sonorians, Kanakas from Hawaii, Chinese with long tails, Malays armed with their everlasting creeses, and others in whose embrowned and bearded visages it was impossible to recognize any especial nationality.” Being in close contact with so many ethnicities naturally bred a certain tolerance and cross-cultural knowledge, but come New Year’s, the Daily Alta California still felt it prudent to educate San Franciscans about the holiday the Chinese held so dear.

The day after the present number of our paper is issued is the first of the Chinese year. Their whole population previous to it pay off all old debts; and then renovate houses and shops, faded dresses, wrinkled faces, and sore hearts. From the white and thin cued patriarch to the urchin who cachinnates over the explosion of his fire crackers, it is a day of universal rejoicing. The new year is everybody’s birthday. All count from it; so that an infant born on the night before is two years old on that morning. New inscriptions, poetical or superstitious, are pasted, in blazing red, over every part of their buildings. Everybody visits, in his finest garments, and is visited in turn. There are heard on every hand the thunder of gongs, drums, and every other noise that wood, metal, catgut, merry muscles, and boisterous lungs, can compound. The reports of bad gunpowder, snapping, fizzing, cracking, and roaring, from ordnance of all sizes, between a boy’s popgun and a warjunk’s twenty-four pounder, help the heart of the old empire to give another grand beat, and heave the tide of life for another year. . . .

There are forms of salutation appropriate only to this festival. The merchant, swimming along in a cloud of blue silk, and flourishing his fan, sees a friend. With many bows they mutually shout Sze sze yui, “your business all to your wish;” or Tsoi fat man kam, “your wealth produce myriads of gold;” or Hop sam, hop seung, “all to your heart, all to your mind.” The young graduate falls upon a chum, and they exclaim, Tsoi pat shang fa, “may your flourishing pen blossom;” or Tuk chim ngo yu, “may you only divine by the head of the ngo,” (a fish consecrated to the god of literature,) Tso yat pan kwai; “soon may you pluck the cinnamon flower,” or some such sophomoric form of good wishes for each other’s literary success. As the family of some patriarch gather round him to wish additions of many more years to his life, he blesses them saying, Tim fuk, tim shau, “sweet blessings, and sweet old age be yours.” A mother salutes her friend with Wong fu, yik tsz, “may your husband flourish, and your family increase.” But we need not multiply these illustrations of the kind wishes expressed, the sentiments felt, and the general rejoicing which characterizes a Chinese New Year’s day. It is but little we see of the more genial and admirable side of the Chinese in the depressed and unhappy condition in which they are in California.

Two men wish each other good fortune for the next year. (L. L. Dixon, California Historical Society)

A surveyor recounts the din to his brother. (1863)

In 1860, William Brewer, a natural sciences teacher, joined a team to in the first geological survey of California. He spent four years in the state, using whatever leisure time available to write to his brother back east. In one letter, Brewer details the earsplitting noise that accompanied a New Year’s celebration in San Francisco.

The next excitement was the Chinese New Year’s, which came off the third week in February. The festival lasts two weeks, but the police grant them the privilege of firing firecrackers only three days. I do not know the reason for their burning so many firecrackers, but I believe it has some religious significance. I thought I had seen firecrackers before, but became convinced that I had not. All day Tuesday, February 17, there was a continuous roar of firecrackers. About sunset I strayed through the main Chinese street, where the wealthier merchants live and have their places of business. From the roofs of the houses the “crackers” were in progress. . . .

(O)ne scene will describe many. On the top of a store is a crowd of twenty or thirty men (Chinese) — packs of crackers are lighted, hurled in the air, and allowed to fall in the street. A part of the time twelve men are lighting and throwing out the packs — a hundred crackers in explosion at each instant, making a continuous roar that can be heard over the whole city. As twilight comes on, the night becomes more picturesque. The roar, not only of this place, but of a hundred other places in the city, the dense volume of smoke that rises from the burning powder, the crowds of Chinese in the streets below — all conspire to produce a grand effect. . . .

Wednesday, February 18, was still worse. The exploded husks accumulated so thickly in front of some of the houses that they took fire and the engines came out to extinguish them, the fire bell of the city giving the alarm!

A woodcarving depicts New Year’s in San Francisco’s Chinatown, 1880. (Paul Frenzeny, Harper’s Weekly)

A poet celebrates the New Year and yearns for home.

China has a long, rich literary tradition, and the migrants who came to California brought those sensibilities and writing skills with them. Though journals and diaries of 19th century Chinese travelers are rare to the point of non-existent, some poems have survived, providing a first-hand account of the writers’ thoughts and emotions about being so far from home. In the following, a sojourner describes the joy of New Year’s and the hope to leave America, known to the Chinese as the Flowery Flag Nation.

New Year’s Day starts a new calendar year.
The scent of spice fills the air beyond the front door.
Pouring cups of spring wine, toasting up to our brows.
Everywhere, we Chinese sojourners greet each other with auspicious sayings.
In joyous laughter, we wish good luck to others, and to ourselves:
May this year be prosperous for all walks of life;
So that, clothed in silk, we can together bid the Flowery Flag farewell.

All the auspicious greetings, I deeply appreciate.
A promment future will follow the New Year’s Day.
Brows beam with joy at the wonderful moment of an approaching spring,
I sincerely wish good luck and peace to fellow Chinese sojourners in America.
With a soaring spirit, I present you a greeting card in return.
New Year gatherings are filled with immeasurable gaiety;
When we are all rich enough, let’s set an early date for home.

It’s a summerlike first month of the new year.
Ten thousand houses are decorated with New Year scrolls.
In a foreign country, we celebrate the joyous festival in springtime clothes;
We greet each other by the door, with auspicious sayings:
May you claim a mine full of gold.
May wealth soothe your soul.
Hosts and guests, so gaily, raise the jade winecups,
Sipping the spring wine, toasting merrily the swift, rosy clouds.

Chinese citizens march in an early New Year parade in San Francisco. Undated. (San Francisco Chronicle)
Men set off a string of firecrackers, c. 1905. (OpenSFHistory)
A parent and child carry New Year’s gifts in San Francisco’s Chinatown, 1912.
A balloon man attracts children’s attention in San Francisco’s Chinatown, c. 1900. (Arnold Genthe, California Historical Society)

And while the following clip is from 1940, later than the time period studied in this article, it shows some great footage from a San Francisco parade that is too good to pass up. Happy New Year!

I am currently working on Gold in the Fire, a book about Ah Toy, the first Chinese brothel madam in gold rush San Francisco.

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I’m a writer, interested in history’s stories and the links between then and now.

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Noel C. Cilker

Noel C. Cilker

I’m a writer, interested in history’s stories and the links between then and now.

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