Millbrae’s Lunar New Year Festival unites culture, community and cuisine in celebration of Asian heritage


Brinda Iyer

Bright red and yellow dragons danced through the streets of Millbrae during its annual Lunar New Year celebration.

Brinda Iyer, Copy Editor

Millbrae gave the Year of the Rabbit the warmest of welcomes with its annual Lunar New Year festival on Sunday, Jan. 29, presenting various aspects of East Asian culture in all of its diverse beauty.

“I thought it’s only about Chinese New Year,” festival goer Ani Putri said. “But there’s all sorts of other different cultures here too.”

Recently, the Bay Area has been in need of a jubilant celebration. On Jan. 21, 11 people were murdered in a mass shooting during a Monterey Park Lunar New Year celebration. This tragic occurrence made the unity, representation and cultural celebration showcased at Millbrae’s festival all the more important.

In light of these events, proper precautions were taken to ensure a safe and enjoyable festival experience for all. Security levels were drastically increased, with cops around every corner.

“They had army guards here in the morning,” event MC Jennifer Chang said. “Around 10:30 there were a lot of officials, and the mayor of Millbrae.”

All of this protection was a welcome extra measure for San Francisco resident and festival attendee Lily Huang. Confirming that the area was safe was a primary concern for Huang, and she made sure to do her research before bringing her family to the fair.

“I can see the people volunteering and the police around,” Huang said. “We felt like we could stop by because it looks safe; it’s Millbrae.”

The biggest attraction of the event was, undoubtedly, the main stage at the front of the festival. Over a dozen performers came to display their talents, ranging from young children eager to impress with the dancing skills they’d learned in school to experienced instrumentalists who played seamlessly together.

One such artist was 14-year-old Samantha Tran, who sang lovely Vietnamese songs, a prime example of the diversity on display at the festival. Tran has been singing and performing across the San Jose area since the age of five. This was her second time singing in Millbrae, as she was a part of last year’s Lunar New Year festival as well.

“I sing a lot around the community,” Tran said. “[The Lunar New Year Festival] is probably one of my favorites since there’s a lot of people and a lot of small businesses everywhere.”

One of the festival’s major contributors was the Northern California Hanfu Association, an organization founded in 2017 that prides itself on cultural representation, especially through the diffusion of Chinese clothing and arts. Hanfu is a style of traditional clothing with over 5,000 years of history, and is worn by the Han people of China. In addition to performances on stage, the organization had a booth at the festival where they sold accessories like hairpins and belts.

Their stage showcase featured talented musicians playing a number of traditional instruments, such as the pipa and the guzheng.

“We like to join local events just to get everyone aware and to share the beauty of the Chinese culture,” Northern California Hanfu Association music director Shuai Shao said. “[At the festival], we can have a taste of different stuff, and some things even remind me of China.”

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Additionally, the association put on a fashion show with a variety of Hanfu outfits, all crafted with impeccable detail and intricate designs. The Northern California Hanfu Association’s co-founder, Jiexu Han, describes the Hanfu style as “the Chinese version of Renaissance,” and always loves the opportunity for others to realize how valuable traditional Chinese clothing truly is.

Crowds also gathered around the lion dance as colorful red and yellow dragons filtered through the streets. A small band with drums and cymbals followed closely behind.

“They finish their performance [early in the day],” Chang said of the lion dancers. “A lot of people come here after that and ask me, ‘When is the lion dance?’ and I have to tell them it’s over, and it’s so disappointing [for them].”

The performers weren’t the only stars of the show. Over 30 food and 50 crafts merchants spread out along Broadway, Millbrae’s main thoroughfare, selling everything from chicken satay to handmade jewelry and elaborate paper designs.

One vendor at the festival was activist and designer Ashlyn So, who is a freshman at Design Tech High School. So has been making waves worldwide as a talented young designer as featured in many magazines and shows, including Paris Fashion Week. At the festival, So was selling meticulously made jade jewelry pieces, including necklaces, bracelets and earrings. 

“I think jade is nice because of its deep meaning,” So said of her art. “It’s about longevity and protection, and there’s many different types of jade with different meanings.”

Beside So’s booth sat Tony Zhao, who makes delicate cards by cutting pieces of paper and putting them together to form stunning pop-up animals, patterns and flowers. Zhao had already been placing his works on the market, so when he heard about the Lunar New Year festival through his wife, he knew he had to check it out. The people, the hearty atmosphere and the delicious food made the celebration worth his time, he said.