Lantern Festival lures many back to Oakland’s Chinatown
on February 6, 2023
Oakland’s Chinatown was transformed Sunday into a vibrant street market, where the aroma of cooking food mingled with the crackle of conversation and the bright colors of balloons and paper lanterns. Beneath a canopy of floating red lanterns, vendors hawked rib and radish soup, boba tea, and pineapple buns.
The joyful event was a collective effort by the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities to support small businesses and create a sense of safety and belonging in the area.
Coinciding the market and workshops with the annual Lantern Festival was the brainchild of Daphne Wu, co-founder of the Oakland-based Cut Fruit Collective, who was hearing from Chinatown merchants that many of their customers were afraid to visit the neighborhood, especially in the evening. Their fears are rooted in random acts of violence against Asians in Chinatown and elsewhere that have multiplied since the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were trying to come up with a creative way to inspire people in the Year of Rabbit,” said Wu, whose nonprofit supports AAPI communities through art, publishing, and fundraising. “We hope people can still be confident in the neighborhood, coming back and feeling safe and vibrant again.”
Wu reached out to local vendors and Chinatown-based volunteer organizations to set up a market during the afternoon and evening of the Lantern Festival, which marks the last day of Lunar New Year celebrations and includes traditions such as night markets and the hanging of lighted lanterns. Cut Fruit Collective also hosted a scavenger hunt that brought people into restaurants and small businesses, in the hope of sparking the younger generation’s interest in exploring the neighborhood and convincing them Chinatown is a safe and fun place to visit.
Ashoka Alvarez almost didn’t attend the festival out of safety concerns. But after spending time there with hundreds of others on a chilly Sunday, Alvarez was glad to be among those supporting Chinatown businesses.
“It’s a great way to learn about the area,” Alvarez said. “ I didn’t know so much about the businesses here until this event.”
The Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce said roughly 10% to 15% of the stores have not reopened since the pandemic, and that business overall in Chinatown hasn’t recovered from pandemic closures, and the Asian hate crimes and inflation that followed. Chinatown’s community organizations have been working hard to attract more shoppers and diners, as well as to spread Asian culture.
Two weeks ago, the Oakland Chinatown Improvement Council held a parade on Lunar New Year’s Eve, livening the streets with lion dances, firecrackers and fireworks. For merchants, there was cause for optimism.
”I have been in Chinatown for almost 40 years, I have never seen such a crowd in Chinatown,” said Stewart Chen, the council’s president.
Overshadowing all the celebrations, however, were the recent mass shootings at a Lunar New Year dance in Monterey Park and on mushroom farms in Half Moon Bay. Chen said the tragedies dramatically changed the holiday mood and set the community back in its recovery.
“For three years, Asians were being targeted and it was almost to the point where people begin to feel safe again,” he said. “It’s like putting the brakes on everything. Now people feel, well, maybe it’s not over.”
At the Lantern Festival market, merchants wrote slogans against racial discrimination and Asian hate on the tent cloths of their booths. Patterns of dragons, lanterns, and auspicious clouds were painted to signify best wishes and peace for the new Year of Rabbit. In the center of the plaza, AAPI Healers for Liberation held self-defense workshops and community healing activities to soothe people’s fears and grief.
“We have the right to say no to situations where we feel uncomfortable, and we have the right to take a stand, though culturally this is not something we’re used to,” said Fei da Costa, martial arts instructor from the nonprofit Suigetsukan collective.
She was pleased to see so many people willing to try the workshops, saying, “it seemed like there was a good energy.”
Throughout the afternoon, the plaza filled up with people who wanted to participate in the sessions Costa and others were conducting. They gathered in a circle for breathing relaxation and Tai Chi exercises, then paired up to practice self-defense moves to de-escalate situations and escape.
“I grew up in San Francisco, Chinatown, it’s really important for me to have this community. This is something that I hope to integrate myself into,” said Costa, who turned on the microphone and greeted newcomers to the next session.
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