Category Archives: Cityseeker Stories

Chinese New Year Parade: a colorful cavalcade through downtown SF

When I arrived in San Francisco, one of the first things I noticed was the huge Chinese community. In my home country–France, Chinese people represent a very small part of the population, but here in San Francisco, they form the biggest immigrant community. Chinese-Americans represent more than 21% of the city’s population. Chinese culture was so foreign to me; all I knew about it was dragon puppets and sticky rice! Naturally, I was very curious to learn more, so one day I decided to visit Chinatown.

Sentinel building. Photo by Laura Damase

Sentinel building. Photo by Laura Damase

Located right in the heart of downtown and covering 1.34 square miles, this area is an important part of San Francisco. In fact, it is the largest Chinatown outside Asia, and the oldest in North America. When I ventured to Bush and Grant streets, I found the grand entrance to this famous neighborhood. I walked through its lovely gate, which is the only authentic Chinatown Gate in North America. Upon entering, I was surrounded by indecipherable Chinese characters, small stores, typical tiny restaurants and stalls selling fruits I didn’t even know existed. Behind their little windows, bakeries offered the best prices on fortune cookies–my favorite! This day, I literally felt transported to a land that is over 6000 miles away from the City by the Bay. Afterward, I realized that was nothing compared to what I was going to see later during my stay in this incredibly diverse city.

Food vendors on the street. Photo by Laura Damase

Indeed a few weeks later, I read on the Chinatown website, “Saturday February 15,Th 5pm, Union SquareThe Chinese New Year Parade will go from Market Street to Powell, then Kearny to Colombus. “What is that?” I wondered. I had no idea what to expect, but reading that people were coming from all over the world for this celebration, I really didn’t want to miss it.  Nowadays the parade is a major annual event in the Bay Area. The parade began more than 150 years ago to when the first Chinese immigrants arrived here in 1848. At that time, the California Gold Rush attracted a mass of Chinese people to the area to work as gold-miners. The parade quickly became a way for them to celebrate and share their culture.

UC Davis Marching Band at the Chinese New Year Parade. Photo by Laura Damase

UC Davis Marching Band at the Chinese New Year Parade. Photo by Laura Damase

On the day of the event, I arrived just on time, right when the first loud firecrackers were lighted to announce the celebrations launching at Union Square. A vast crowd was already gathered and I understood that being on time only means accepting to stand behind people who arrived hours in advance. As soon as the first trumpets sounded, the processions began without interruption. From the beautiful dancing girls to martial arts groups, the parade was so varied! It included stilt walkers, boy scouts and church groups, all smiling and holding huge flags, wearing costumes and uniforms. I also saw glimmering classic convertibles with politicians who greeted people and waved while passing the crowd. High school bands marched down the street, preceded by big banners announcing their arrival,  as well as lion dancers and acrobats.  Suddenly, loads of floats passed in front of us, all impressively decorated with glittering paillettes,  painted flags and with amazing imagery of dragons, every single detail of the floats was resplendent. Some floats were quite long, beautiful and moved slowly. Other floats carried wonderful women who posed like movie stars in their incredibly refined dresses—they looked perfect! I noticed a common theme among the handmade paintings and statues that decorated the floats . . . horses! Everywhere, of all sizes, all shapes, all poses imaginable, horses. Why? Well, in China, the horse is the symbol for 2014. In fact, this animal is a part of the 12-year-cycle of animals in the Chinese zodiac, which is also associated with one of the five elements. 2014 is the year of wooden horse, which in Chinese culture means good luck and prosperity. The wooden horse, also, should make people who are born this year more likely to be energetic, bright and intelligent.

2014 is the year of the wooden horse. Photo by Laura Damase

2014 is the year of the wooden horse. Photo by Laura Damase

But let’s go back to the parade! A few minutes past 8pm, the dragon I was anticipating finally arrived. With a big head and long red and yellow tail, it was even more impressive than what I was expecting. When I saw it emerge from the well-known Sentinel building corner, I imagined it was going to be very long. In fact, I had the feeling it was just never-ending. Like a snake, it twirled from one side of the street to the other, in a crazy dance.  At this point, the parade truly looked like it may never end; a whirl of participants continued to walk in front of us. The parade proved to be amazingly diverse with more than 100 groups marching. After the dragon, the cutest part came: kindergarteners! Riding in wagons or proudly walking, they were wearing traditional makeup on their eyes and very sophisticated outfits. Some of them were dressed in traditional silky red tunics trimmed in black, with thin belts tightened around their waists. Other kids wore a very traditional Chinese outfit, called a Hanfus, which is also red, but with many other different colors! Their outfits boasted shiny beads and lovely embroideries that formed gorgeous geometrical patterns. The color gradients in the patterns were so elaborate that they almost looked unreal. Right above those pretty ensembles, their sweet little faces were capped by Phoenix crowns–colorful hats covered by stones and strands of beads.


Kids participating in the parade. Photo by Laura Damase

Kids participating in the parade. Photo by Laura Damase

On my way back, I finally realized how big the event actually was: hundreds of pedestrians were walking around the closed streets, holding balloons or sparklers. In fact, almost 1 million people were celebrating the Chinese New Year in San Francisco on this Saturday . . . and it doesn’t include those who watched it on TV!

A day in Coyoacàn, diving into the heart of Mexico City

Our intern Laura visited Mexico City over the holiday break. Below she describes the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of Coyoacàn, a peaceful, yet exciting neighborhood.

I am Laura, a 22-year-old French girl living in San Francisco for a six-month period. When I arrived in California in October I planned to explore Mexico, especially since a friend living in Mexico City invited me to visit him. Eventually, I got the opportunity to go around the holidays, which allowed me to enjoy the incredible decorations. Plus I have to say, for a girl coming from a cold French region, walking around wearing a short skirt in December is pretty exciting!

After landing, the first thing that caught my attention was the size of this city. At 573 square miles, Mexico City is 14 times larger than Paris! I figured that I could not see everything, I had to make choices. With only 8 days in the city, what did I absolutely need to see? For years I knew I wanted to see Frida Kahlo’s house, so exploring its neighborhood seemed like a great plan. Located right in the heart of the city, Coyoacán is one of the 16 boroughs of the Federal District. “Indeed, you can’t leave Mexico without experiencing this area” my friend told me. This became clear to me when he dropped off at Plaza Hidalgo only on the second day of my trip, the last day of 2013.

San Juan Bautista church was built in the 16th century

A melody of salsa

The first thing I noticed in Coyoacán was the architecture. Buildings are very low, and their colors are so crazy. I noticed the huge contrast between them and the grey color of the crumbling San Juan Bautisto baroque church façade. Inside the church, the ceiling is covered with very interesting colonial paintings. The different tints were amazingly bright, backgrounds, so dark and depth of field was almost not represented. I felt very lucky to see this church, so different from the roman and gothic arts in my own country.

After a while, I came back out to the fresh sunlight. It was nine in the morning, time when waiters are tying aprons around their waist, when old men meet on a bench, trying to solve world’s problems. A light breeze, twittering birds and the scent of coffee hung in the atmosphere. The city was waking up leisurely, and I found everything so quiet, unlike the rest of the city. However, I changed my mind pretty quickly! Once the first stools have been set on cafes terraces, the area became more alive. Even at this time, melodies of salsa music escaped from windows.

Nearby, I saw a yellow gate with an arched shape. Just above, “Bazar artisanal mexicano” had been hand-painted. A craft market? Without hesitation, I went for it! After walking through the first food stalls, I found a genuine Ali Baba’s cave. Surrounded by lime, corn and fried food smells, I jumped in this colorful crowded shamble. Exotic fruits, spices, sombreros, traditional clothes and trinkets, but also posters, scrap metals, sheets were for sale all around me. Strolling among the pervasively draped fabrics and the frolicsome children, I just had the feeling I could find everything here! “Que vas a comprar hoy, chica?” A work-worn hand grabbed mine, it was an old woman offering a henna tattoo. Amused by being constantly called out to buy, I always answered with a smile or a polite “No, gracias!”

The Bazar Artisanal Mexicano  probably sells everything you can imagine

The Bazar Artisanal Mexicano probably sells everything you can imagine

 La Coyoacana

Time to meet my friend for lunch was already here. “La Coyocana, 1pm” he told me. When I arrived, he and his family were already enjoying a michelada, the mix of lime, tomato juice, pepper slices and beer, the alleged “perfect hangover drink”. They all were sitting in nice-looking chairs in this wonderful courtyard. Traditional decorations were hanging above the tables, waiters were running, straddling on every side of the yard, trying to serve everyone as fast as they could. This was such a special place, it literally took my breath away as soon as I arrived. Instead of a michelada, I ordered an agua de horchata -the most refreshing beverage in the world. It is made of rice, almonds, sometimes cinnamon and often vanilla: my new addiction!  The sunlight filtered through the draperies sometimes reaching us, and a fresh breeze stroked our skins. Then, el Molcajete came. To describe it clearly I would say it’s a big stone bowl with three feet that is sometimes used as a grinder.  My molcajete however contained a traditional Mexican assortment: pork and beef, chorizo, tomatoes and greens onions, with chicharrón–huge pieces of crispy pork rind, all accompanied by the inevitable tortillas.


“Molcajete” a traditional Mexican dish.

Aware that this plate was invented by pre-Hispanic cultures, eating from it felt like a journey back in time!  I was wholly amazed by the beauty of this spot and by the charming scene unfolding around me. While we were enjoying our food, a group of six costumed men were singing very loudly: some were playing the guitar, some the violin and even the triangle. I knew they were mariachis, Mexican folk musicians, but this was the very first time I was seeing them for real. Suddenly, they came to us! I didn’t know what to do, but my friend’s mother knew: after handed them a bill, she whispered something to them and they started playing for us. One of the best memories from my Mexican trip!

Mariachis playing a very traditional love song in the restaurant’s patio

To continue this perfect moment with art, I decided to go to the famous Frida Khalo Museum, which is in fact the house where she was born and always lived. Again, being in this place was like walking through time. For me, it was very sad and surprising to see how much she suffered since her childhood. The house, her sanctuary, is so calming, it’s hard to imagine how tormented her life had been. What I found most moving was seeing the painting Viva la vida, probably because it was so simple, so pure and almost infantile. Knowing that she created this painting, despite the fact that she was dealing with such dreadful pain, made me even more fascinated by this woman.  To me, it just seemed to be an explosive hymn to life. The house is brimming with light, colors, life and the gorgeous surrounding blue is impressively stirring.

The famous blue walls of the Frida Khalo Museum

During the last part of my visit, I examined a temporary exhibition featuring pieces of her wardrobe.  What was really thrilling to me was that I understood that her firmness, her toughness and her confidence was in fact a way to hide her vulnerability, her frailness. That’s how I realized she was a mix of weakness and strength. More than a touristic experience, visiting Frida Kahlo’s museum was a profound experience for me.
Coyoacàn has so much history that makes it a huge part of Mexico’s soul. From my first steps on Plaza Hidalgo, I felt the spirit of this place. Every time I close my eyes now, I dream of going back there for a nice ramble.



Frida Kahlo museum –

Bazar artisanal mexicano Facebook page:


Le Mont Saint Michel

Three and a half hours outside of Paris stands Le Mont Saint Michel, a castle-like structure posing as an island commune just off the coast of Normandy. Before we could see ocean water, the silhouette of Mont Saint Michel emerged on the horizon, obscured by dreamy layers of distance like a mirage. As our bus made its way closer to the shore, the details of the structure began to solidify–the blue-grey roof tiles, the dusty windows, the tiny gold statue of St. Michel on top of the highest spire.

Mont Saint Michel

Photo by Lauren Espina

From the parking lot, a shuttle took us across a bridge over the mudflats that encircle Mont Saint Michel, and once at the base of the structure, we made our way on foot. Lined with gift shops, hotels and restaurants, the main street was by far the busiest part of the commune, the bloodline to many of the smaller vantage points and flats that are home to its 49 residents. The crowd dissipated as we hit the first set of stairs, when visitors with children or bad knees decided to hang back.

Photo by Lauren Espina

Roughly 350 steps to the top, the uphill battle was surprisingly easy, as there were more than enough visual diversions to keep us distracted: the climbing vines in shades of red, green and brown, abandoned spigots aimed at stone basins, blankets of moss coating the walls, the local cat posing on a ledge, the different shape, texture and hue of each brick.

Mont St Michel 7

Photo by Lauren Espina

At the peak of the grand staircase, we came up on the first view of the east-facing mudflats and the mouth of the Couesnon River. On this uncharacteristically sunny day, the shallow water acted as a glassy reflection of the sky, the billowing clouds and breaks of sunlight creating a glittery white sheen over the landscape. On the western side of the building, we had a similar view with a less pronounced distinction between the water and land. We could see people walking along the mudflats, and with the impression of the sky so clearly reflected, it looked as if they were walking on water.

Mont St Michel 5

As we made our way through the unfurnished chambers, quiet chapels and open courtyards, the grandeur of Mont Saint Michel–which initially reminded me of a cross between Hogwarts and Kings Landing–evolved into a more understated beauty. The stone structure was never a palace or home to any royals, though it certainly looks the part. Its history as a monastery, a place of prayer where people came to be closer to God, gave it a subtle, tranquil air that resonated long after we left.

Of all the remarkable sites we visited on our trip to France, from the gardens of Giverny to the Palace of Versailles and the various arrondissements of Paris, Mont Saint Michel was the most memorable. Perhaps it’s because I knew the least about this landmark or maybe because all of the other destinations are so well-documented, but there was something transcendent in the vacancy and majesty of this location that is truly striking.

Graceland Too

This summer, one of our editors, Landon Moblad took a road trip with a couple of buddies through the American south. He returned with tales of colorful characters and interesting sites, the highlight of which may have been a curious little museum in a sleepy little town in Mississippi.


It was probably our overall indifference to Elvis Presley mixed with a preference to not blow 40 bucks touring around a tacky mansion, but the idea of checking out Graceland never really popped into our heads while passing through Memphis.

“You guys should check out Graceland Too,” a Nashville friend casually advised. “I haven’t been myself, but I hear it’s . . . interesting.”

Our friend quickly rattled off what few facts he knew about the place. The vague picture he painted conjured up the image of a kooky old man who “drinks a case of Coca-Cola a day” and runs a makeshift hoarder’s den tribute to Elvis out of his house. Sold.

CC 2.0 photo by Lindsey Turner


A few days later, en route to Alabama, we pulled into Holly Springs, Mississippi, a snoozy little town about 30 miles south of the Tennessee border. We made our way to Graceland Too still not really sure what to expect. The house we arrived at was stark white (the color du jour, as Google image searches show it to once have been hot pink and royal blue as well), with dozens of retired spray paint cans strewn all over the front yard, spilling into the street. It became pretty clear at this point that the man we were about to see wasn’t exactly playing with a full deck.

We were greeted on the front porch by Paul McLeod, the homeowner and curator of the “museum.” His frazzled state and little-too-hard slaps on the back immediately put me and my two friends at a bit of unease. Wearing a half-buttoned shirt, sandals that looked like they’d been through several wars, dentures that could have used a fresh layer of Fixodent and a gray tuft of hair that probably made for a rad pompadour back in the day, Paul ushered us into his house.

CC 2.0 photo by Diana Gurley McGaw

The first thing I vividly remember walking in was the smell. The dank musk was unlike anything I’ve ever smelled before—a heinous mix of dust, body odor, unidentifiable cooking smells and decades-old newspaper. Lucky for us, there wasn’t a single window in the house to be found.

The next thing I remember quickly realizing was that to say Paul was barely lucid would be an understatement. You didn’t engage with him so much as he talked at you, almost incoherently, staring through you with eyes that seemed to be dancing around on some other planet. The claims of him being an Elvis memorabilia freak proved to be true, however, and soon we were being whisked from room-to-room to see a packed to the gills assortment of his King-related treasures and trash (mostly trash).

As we went along, we understood that we were less getting some crash course on Elvis Presley from a devoted collector, and more getting a freak show tour of this man’s descent into madness. My friends and I nervously exchanged glances as Paul repeatedly slapped our backs, unsettlingly pinched our arms, yelled at us and called us a variety of colorful names, including “fart sniffers” and “professional shit eaters.” Completely fabricated tales of him hanging with Elvis back in the day were interspersed with insane tales about President Obama and the Bush twins coming to his house every year. “Man, I’ve seen a lot of weird shit,” he must have said at least a dozen times. That part, I do believe.

As we went deeper and deeper into his bizarre labyrinth of a house, surrounded by broken down Elvis cardboard cutouts and newspapers plastered to the ceiling, our desire to get the hell out of there grew by the minute. Finally, we made it to the kitchen, where we found some respite in the form of the first window to the outside world we’d seen the entire time. That moment ended in a hurry though when I turned to see Paul casually waving a tiny (but definitely real) pistol at us. My heart jumped and I mustered a “please don’t point that at me,” to which he simply replied, “shut up,” before setting it down on the counter.

CC 2.0 photo by Jason Scragz

It was only after we got back to our car and high-tailed it out of Holly Springs that we did some research into Graceland Too. Paul has been offering his “tours” for decades, letting anyone in to show them around at anytime, 24/7. Literally. The place has become a word-of-mouth stop for oddity fans passing through, as well as Ole Miss students, who show up in packs looking for something to do after the bars let out. Whether it’s mid-afternoon or 4 AM, Paul is apparently happy to oblige.

As truly bizarre and uncomfortable as Paul’s tour was in the moment—like some disturbing scene from a David Lynch movie—it was also full of plenty of laughs. My friends and I look back at it as one of the more memorable moments of our jaunt through the South (and certainly the most unique). So if you’ve ever got a friend who’s going to be in that neck of the woods, pass the word along. Just say, “you oughta  check out Graceland Too . . . I heard it’s interesting.”

-Landon Moblad

Your Collegiate Travel Bucket List

By now, everyone’s seen Buzzfeed’s video list of But why give yourself a whole decade to get around to traveling when you have the most commitment-free four years of your life to take advantage of: college! With summer, winter and spring breaks (plus all those long weekends), this is the perfect time to get out there and indulge in all of those vacations you’ll wish later in life that you had taken when you had the chance.

1. The quintessential road trip. It doesn’t matter if it’s across the country or just a few states over; the only necessities are good friends, some gas money and a rough travel plan. When else will you be able to get away from it all for a week without worrying about taking time off work, getting a sitter for pets or kids (or, alternately, listening to a chorus of “Are we there yet?” for the whole trip) and accommodating everyone’s different schedules?

Tip: Stop at all the funky tourist traps you see, like  or the location of the world’s largest artichoke, and take lots of pictures.

Photo Courtesy of ,

2. A music festival. Depending on what you’re feeling and where you live, you can choose from , , , or the many other festivals in the US and around the world. Just find a group of friends with similar music taste and get yourselves to a festival. Plus, when you’re in college you won’t feel as grungy camping out and going un-showered for a few days, because you’re used to doing that for finals week anyway.

Tip: For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, figure out if any of your favorite artists are playing private shows that you can get into.

Photo Courtesy of ,

3. A volunteer trip. Take a trip with the sole purpose of volunteering in a place that could use your help. Whether it’s teaching schoolchildren in Africa to read or building houses in an area wrecked by a natural disaster, it will make you appreciate what 嘉盛 you take for granted in your own life, plus you’ll be making a difference in the world. This trip is also great for those of us on a college budget, because a lot of programs cover housing and food expenses while you’re working with them.

Tip: Find a cause that you’re passionate about before taking a volunteer trip. If you know you’re not great with kids, opt to plant trees or work at an animal sanctuary instead. Interested in planning your own volunteer trip? Check out organizations like , ,  or .

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4. A camping trip. Grab a tent, a sleeping bag and some frozen hot dogs and go camping. Camping sites are affordable and easy to find, and spending a few nights in the great outdoors serves as a nice change from sleeping in a cramped dorm room or apartment. Places like and offer beautiful hikes, chilly rivers and that crisp California mountain air that will leave you loath to return to the real world.

Tip: Turn off your phone, laptop, TV and iPad for the weekend and go outside for a change. It’ll be really hard, but you’ll (probably) survive.

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5. Study abroad. Immerse yourself in a new culture and learn the languages and customs, either by staying with a host family or getting an apartment with some roommates. Take advantage of your school’s study abroad program or plan your trip through one of the many third-party programs out there. For a different experience, find an internship abroad or even take a gap year and set off on your own.

Tip: Take language classes, but also try to pick up some sort of hobby unique to the region you’re living in, like a yoga session in India, a perfume workshop in France, tango lessons in Argentina or flamenco in Spain.

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