SAN FRANCISCO — The San Francisco Chinese New Year Festival and Parade, the largest of its kind outside Asia, was first held in 1851. This Saturday, February 4, a contemporary art project was included in the annual event when 16 immigrant women from San Francisco’s Chinatown and the Mission District powered through the wind and rain carrying hand-made flags representing their stories. 

After the parade celebrating the Year of the Rabbit, the women followed a mariachi band into the banquet room of the Chinese Culture Center (CCC), a collaborator on the project How I Keep Looking Up/Como Sigo Mirando Hacia Arriba/仰望. Donning rain ponchos and proudly holding up their flags, they were greeted with cheers and applause. Artist Christine Wong Yap, slightly damp in the pink sequin top she had worn to march in, stood with them. Yap conceived of How I Keep Looking Up a year ago, holding workshops in Spanish, English, and Chinese as well as one-on-one meetings with the women for the last six months. 

In spite of the weather, crowds of thousands lined the streets to see the lion dancers, marching bands, rabbit floats, and fireworks, which lasted about two and a half hours. It was crucial that the 16 women, all of them Chinese or Latina and many of them community activists, be present in the parade as well, Yap told Hyperallergic

“Women of color are so underrepresented in so many high visibility platforms,” Yap said. “It’s important for their flags to be seen, but it’s also important for them — their faces and their bodies — to be visible in the parade.”

Yap conceived of How I Keep Looking Up a year ago, holding workshops in Spanish, English, and Chinese. (photo by Jenna Garrett)

Now that the flags have been displayed in the parade, they will be on view at the CCC until April 1. Hoi Leung, deputy director of the center, told Hyperallergic the parade was the ideal venue for the women to first show them.  

“The parade was one of the few opportunities for immigrants of any background to display their culture very joyfully and proudly in a public space,” Leung said. “That’s what the parade is about, and it’s a venue to extend an invitation from Chinatown to other communities of color to come and share these values.”

Yap, who was previously an artist in residence at the University of California, Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute, often focuses on mental health in her work. She believes making art with other immigrant women from different cultures and telling stories of resilience gave participants an opportunity to feel that they belong.

That was true for Manuela Esteva. In an interview, Esteva, speaking in Spanish, said the stairs in her flag represent people moving on and healing after trauma, and interlocking circles show their interdependence and reliance on each other. She had never sewn or made art before, but by the second workshop, she loved designing her flag. 

“My flag represents growth,” Esteva said. “I never thought I could do this, but making it helped me get rid of my pain.”

Yap wanted participants to realize that talent does not need to be innate — it can be learned and cultivated. “That was one of the first things we established in the workshops,” Yap said. “We embraced imperfection and failure as markers of growth and valued trying more than accomplishment.”

Vida Kuang, education director at the CCC and a volunteer on the project (photo by Andrew Brobst)

Yap says the people in the workshop became a community, cheering one another on, offering support, and learning about each other’s cultures. 

Cammi Huang, speaking in English and through a translator, said she liked that the workshop was attended by all immigrant women, and she thought getting to learn some Spanish was fun. 

Huang designed a flag showing two dandelions, one with its seeds blowing away and a larger, colorful bloom. The respective flowers are symbolic portraits of Huang before and after immigrating to the United States, finding a job and friends, and growing roots. Huang enjoyed the experience of telling her story through art.  

“It’s more about what’s inside, not about what we look like, and during this workshop, we got more understanding about what we’re feeling,” she said. “With artwork, it’s more freeing to show what we want to show to the world.”

How I Keep Looking Up/Como Sigo Mirando Hacia Arriba/仰望 (photo by Jenna Garrett)
Thousands braved the wind and rain to attend the parade this weekend. (photo by Jenna Garrett)
The flags will be on view at the CCC until April 1. (photo by Andrew Brobst)

Emily Wilson is a radio and print reporter in San Francisco. She has written stories for dozens of media outlets including NPR, Latino USA, the San Francisco Chronicle, SF Weekly, California Teacher,...