New Year of the Rabbit

Last Sunday, crowds streamed into Chinatown from the bottlenecked Red Line stop, down Cermak, through the traffic barriers and past the gateway that reads, in gilded Chinese characters, “The world is for all.” College kids from the North Side weaved in and out of the shops, slurping bubble tea smoothies despite the chill. Whole families in ski jackets and mittens huddled on the sidewalk, stomping their feet and blowing white air into their fists. A few older Chinese women stood back from the curb and the crush, resting their backs on the window of a bakery. A mother who had brought her daughter here to see the excitement, leaned close to her stroller and announced, “It’s the Year of the Rabbit!” The toddler cocked her head and, finally getting the gist, squealed, “Paraaaaade!”

Spanning three blocks on Wentworth, the Lunar New Year Parade rang in one of the most important holidays on the Chinese calendar, melding traditional symbols with local politics and color. Men dressed as Cai Shen, the god of prosperity, waved at the spectators between groups of local high school marching bands that blared intermittently.  Two men held American flags in a gazebo riding on what looked like a tissue-paper-covered tank. Brightly colored dragons with furry trappings bobbed and slithered down the street, greeted by cheers from the sidelines.  A couple of University of Illinois students got swept up in the moment; one of them screamed and wagged her finger, “Woo, it’s a dragon! A silver dragon! I’m gonna catch it!” The other, slightly more reserved, belted out “This is the greatest parade in Chicago.” And then, reaching her arm out and groping the air, “I want a fortune cookie! The short girl back here wants one!”

At TenRen, a tea shop down the street, a local TV crew interviewed Frank Fine, the store president, about his wares. Fine, an affable elderly man from Southern China, patiently listed off the benefits of the teas and herbs he sells. The interviewer nodded and repeated, at a high pitch, certain select words and phrases: “longevity,” and “oh, so it’s nutritional,” and “brings good fortune…” Fine broke her train of presumptuous thought when he told her that the ginseng from Wisconsin was of higher quality than that from China. The reason? “Virgin land.”