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Chinese New Year Parade Represents Homecoming, Traditions for Mustang Band Members

The Mustang Band performs in San Francisco's Embarcadero Plaza in front of the iconic Ferry Building on an overcast day.
Written By Larry Peña

As first-year saxophone player Allen Forte marched with the other 200-odd members of the Mustang Band through the streets of San Francisco during the Chinese New Year Parade, it felt like a big welcome home. 

Forte, a San Francisco native, played the parade with his high school marching band — but missed performing during his junior and senior years when COVID canceled the event.

“I just loved going back and seeing my community again,” Forte said. The parade gave him the opportunity to reconnect with both old friends and an important hometown tradition.

And tradition was top of mind for fourth-year trumpet player Kaitlyn Duong, who just performed in her final Chinese New Year parade with the Mustang Band and is ready to hand off the experience to the younger members. 

“I was excited to get one last go at it,” she said. “But my favorite part was seeing the new members participate in it for the first time, because it's not something you can mentally prepare for if you haven't seen it before. Just the sheer amount of people and the hype that is around it is wild.”

The parade, sponsored by Alaska Airlines and run by the San Francisco Chinese Chamber of Commerce, is part of the largest Lunar New Year celebration in the world outside of Asia. This past February marked the eighth time the Mustang Band has performed in the parade since 2014.

Band members perform while marching down a city street at dusk
Band members braved the rain to celebrate Chinese New Year. Photo by Nick Waldron.

“This is by far our most exciting event that we play,” said Mustang Band director Nick Waldron. “It's one of the 10 largest parades in the world, and we had somewhere between three and four million people in attendance — we don't see these types of crowds in SLO.”

The day’s events included an annual “band off” between the Mustang Band and the marching band from UC Davis. The two bands faced off in the plaza in front of the Ferry Building and took turns performing rousing songs to a crowd of tourists and supporters alike.

Then it was off to the starting point in the Financial District, where the band joined floats, dancers and massive human-powered dragons for a nearly two-mile route around Union Square and up into Chinatown.

“It's very vibrant, it's extremely colorful, and people are always friendly,” Forte said. “No matter what your background is, it's just a time to celebrate and experience joy.”

To prepare for the parade’s grueling route, members of the band begin extra conditioning every Sunday through winter quarter. By the week before the event, the band was up to marching 2.5 miles each week. But even all that work doesn’t prepare students for the rush of hearing the enthusiastic crowds.

“The excitement and the crowds and the noise always raises everyone's endurance just a little bit as well,” said Waldron. “It's like a health potion that you're taking just hearing that many people cheer for you."

Members of the Mustang Band, in white, yellow and green uniforms, perform in front of a concrete column at San Francisco's Embarcadero
The Mustang Band faced off in friendly competition against UC Davis at Embarcadero Square. Photo by John Osumi.​​​​

“I think it was the most engagement that I've seen compared to the previous times I've done it,” Duong said. “Everyone along the route was singing and jumping around along with us, and they all had huge smiles on their faces.”

After the parade, the cultural exchange continued as the students had a chance to explore the city and take part in the rest of the celebrations. Melanie Woo, a fourth-year cymbal player, saw her parents, who came into town from nearby Pleasanton. Her dad brought her Chinese treats that she can’t usually find in San Luis Obispo, which she shared with her fellow drumline members.

“Lunar New Year is tied for Christmas as my favorite holiday, and every year my family goes all out,” she said, adding that due to her college schedule, she’s not usually able to come home for the holiday.

Woo says she appreciates the opportunities that this event provides her and her bandmates: from the national exposure, to having fun playing music and being with friends — and the hidden lessons about being on time and working together to perform at a high level.

“On the outside it looks like just a fun experience, but really participating in these events is providing different little life lessons,” she said. “I think this event is really awesome because not only do I get to perform for San Francisco, but it's also a way for me to celebrate my own culture doing something that I love and share that experience with my bandmates.”

To listen to the Mustang Band in action, visit the Mustang Band Parents and Fans Facebook page for video highlights of the Chinese New Year performances.

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