Year of the Dragon

Lunar New Year in Red Bluff…

On February 4, an event the likes of which hasn’t been seen since 1908 is returning to Red Bluff in honor of Lunar New Year. As the calendar turns to the Year of the Dragon, performers from San Francisco’s Leung’s White Crane Dragon and Lion Dance Association will present a dragon dance in the historic Chinatown Alley.

“The year of the dragon is considered the luckiest year of the Chinese zodiac,” says Jessica Chew of the Helen and Joe Chew Foundation, which, along with the descendants of Wong Foey, another Chinese Gold Rush family, is sponsoring the day’s activities. “Most people in the Asian community are familiar with Chinese lions. This will be the first time many see a dragon.”

Photo courtesy of the Helen and Joe Chew Foundation

The celebration is the culmination of a year of events highlighting Red Bluff ’s Chinese history and the five pioneering families that developed Chinatown Alley at Hickory and Rio Streets, including the Chews, Lims, Chans, Foeys and Chins. While the town no longer has an active Chinatown, it still has a deep history as the last steamboat stop on the Sacramento River, where Chinese families immigrated and immersed in the community. The descendants of these families are helping the community understand the rich history and are debunking some false narratives.

Two of the biggest false narratives are that there are Chinese tunnels in Red Bluff and that Chinatown was burned down. Of the first: there were never tunnels. Of the second, which is connected to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinatown was not burned down and Chinese people were never formally expelled from Red Bluff, as they were in Redding in 1886.

Photos courtesy of the Helen and Joe Chew Foundation

In fact, among the many documents Jessica Chew has accumulated from her family history is a petition supporting the immigration of her great grandfather, Joe You Chew, with more than 20 signatures from everyone from the mayor to the postmaster. “How rare to see such notable people endorsing an immigration during the expulsion period,” says Chew.

Jessica Chew moved to Red Bluff to care for her ailing grandfather, Joe Chew, in December 2020. His funeral turned out to be eye-opening for her. “I knew he knew a lot of people,” she says. “I just didn’t know how many. After my grandfather passed away I realized the magnitude of the relationships. When you put all the stories together, it makes a town.” She’s been on a mission to uncover and share those stories ever since.

In 2023, Jessica and others began a series of public events celebrating the designation of Historical Chinatown Alley in the town. To underscore the alley’s importance, they have staged film screenings, book, art and dance events, as well as a Veterans Day ceremony highlighting the contributions of Chinese veterans. While the upcoming Lunar New Year celebration is considered a culminating event, they still look forward to a book release on the Chinese history of Tehama County this year, as well as the designation of the Chinese portion of the cemetery as a historical landmark.

Photos courtesy of the Helen and Joe Chew Foundation

Visitors to the February 4 event can expect vendors of various Asian and Pacific Islander cuisine, tai chi and other cultural demonstrations, as well as the dragon parade and then lion parades that will open with a blessing of great power, good luck and strength for the residents of Red Bluff. It will culminate in a walking tour of important sites in the Chinatown Alley history.

The dragon dance was last performed in Red Bluff on July 4, 1908, when Wong Foey paid $2,000 to ensure a dragon to travel from Marysville for a very special community performance. His descendants are sponsoring this year’s performance from San Francisco.

Jessica Chew is quick to note that this is a more expansive celebration of the Lunar New Year, to incorporate traditions beyond the Chinese. There will be traditional dances by luMien and Hmong communities and foods available from a variety of Asian communities. “We want to make sure that the parade represents a transfer from the five original Chinese families to the new community of Asians in the North State,” she says. The process of celebrating the Chinese history is dynamic, with new information being discovered at each event. More than 600 people attended the dedication of Chinatown Alley, allowing Chew to meet even more people. “We’ve had a lot of descendants come back that we hadn’t met yet, so it’s made us very happy,” she says. She’s hoping even more are discovered when the book is released. “We want to track them all down and make sure their history is highlighted.”

“There’s a lot in Red Bluff that they (residents) can be proud of about their Chinatown,” says Chew. “I’m certainly very proud of it.” •

2024 Lunar New Year Festival
February 4, 2024
Historic Chinatown Alley, Red Bluff

About Melissa Mendonca

Melissa is a graduate of San Francisco State and Tulane universities. She’s a lover of airports and road trips and believes in mentoring and service to create communities everyone can enjoy. Her favorite words are rebar, wanderlust and change.

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