Gong Xi Fa Cai from the Riverside Lunar Festival

Tim Baca/HIGHLANDER
Tim Baca/HIGHLANDER

Standing on a brick planter on Main Street in Downtown Riverside, I watched as several hundred karate students, dancers in elaborate costumes and a few dozen dragons formed into rows in the square outside of City Hall. Blinking the sunlight from my eyes as I balanced my notebook in one hand and my coffee in the other, I watched as a man in a yellow Buddha costume placed himself at the head of the parade, while cymbals crashed and the beat of large taiko drums echoed in my chest. A moment paused, and the marchers started at a full run, with the procession leader performing frantic gymnastics as dragons and electric bicycles snaked between the crowds of astonished onlookers. Abandoning my perch atop the brickwork, I kept up a brisk pace along the parade route, following the red Chinese lanterns that adorned the streets above Downtown Riverside and marked the site for the Asian Pacific Cultural Association’s 2015 Lunar Festival.

Finding myself at the end of the parade route near a stage that had been set up on Mission Inn Avenue, I watched as the procession raced toward the stage. The group was led by several people in Buddha costumes who zigzagged across the road and waved fans at onlookers’ faces, followed by multicolored dragons and drummers. Some dragons were carried by two people, who interacted with the vendors and children who waited along the parade route, terrifying some of the younger kids. Others were carried on long poles by over a dozen men, stretching well over 50 feet in length. Whenever the procession passed an intersection or turned a corner, a cache of firecrackers was ignited, sending loud bangs reverberating through the streets and columns of sulfurous smoke into the air. The associated organizations and clubs that would be performing throughout the day followed at a march, dressed in karate uniforms, grass skirts, elaborate headdresses or various other beautiful costumes.

When the parade reached the stage, the marchers broke ranks and filed along the sides of the road as the members of the city council took to the stage. Councilman Paul Davis opened the ceremony, and invited UCR’s own Senryu Taiko organization to kick things off with a drumming demonstration. We’ve all heard the rhythmic booming that indicates their practices, and their work obviously paid off, as their demonstration drew rapturous applause and cheers from the crowd. When their performance concluded, several members of the Asian Pacific Cultural Association came to the stage, announcing some of the activities and exhibits that would be present for the festival. To finish the opening ceremony, several white doves were released over the crowd, signifying the peace that the festival hopes to cultivate at home and abroad. As the ivory birds took flight, it was clear that the Lunar Festival had truly begun.

The crowd, which swelled to over 4,000 attendees, dispersed and headed to the various booths that lined the downtown streets. Vendors sold trinkets and toys, from Chinese lanterns to bows and arrows. Tables were adorned with handcrafted jewelry, carved sculptures and innumerable waving lucky cat figurines, also known as maneki-neko. One popular vendor featured a giant inflatable Buddha that was the site of hundreds of selfies.

The food court lined Lemon Street, and the sugary smell of funnel cakes and teriyaki sauce hung in the air. There was the usual street fair variety of foods such as corn dogs, kettle corn and soda, as well as a large variety of Asian cuisine. Egg rolls and chicken kebabs were sold by the thousands, while other tents served up freshly fried squid and cups of Thai tea. The most popular tent by far sold a “Potato Tornado”: a spiral-cut potato that’s battered, deep-fried and served on a skewer. The queue for the “Potato Tornado” tent stretched down the length of the street, and the owners managed to sell their entire stock before the end of the festival. I opted to try a piece of one a friend had purchased, and it had the same artery-clogging deliciousness as standard street fair food.

Throughout the day, the groups that had marched in the opening parade performed on several stages that had been set up around Downtown. The acts featured traditional dances, martial arts exhibitions and tea ceremonies as well as the sheer volume of events ensured there was something for everyone. One particularly popular event was the Lunarfest Anime Fashion Show, which displayed several of the talented cosplayers that had come to the festival. Dozens of Sailor Moons convened in the Chinese pavilion on the library grounds, and I stood behind Iron Man as he snapped photos of the stage. In the background, the sound of a Michael Jackson impersonator that performed on the main stage carried through the air.

As night fell, the moon rose high above the crowd, casting its pale light onto the streets. The red lanterns that were strung above the streets were illuminated as well, giving them a beautiful red glow. As the stages and vendor tables were dismantled by event staff, the bulk of the crowd converged on the main intersection of Lemon Street and Mission Inn Avenue, as the closing ceremony commenced.

The first performer was Tepua Productions, which featured traditional dances from the Polynesian Islands. While the backup band played a rousing beat on their drums, men and women in bright skirts and elaborate headdresses performed a traditional Tahitian dance. Volunteers were called up, and the crowd cheered as children and adults took to the stage to try to find their own “island rhythm.” The highlight of their performance was a demonstration by a Samoan fire dancer who swung the flaming baton over his head and around his body. One of his most impressive feats was holding the burning torch on the soles of his feet, drawing gasps and cheers from the crowd. Senryu Taiko then took to the stage for their third and final performance of the day, followed by the Northern Shaolim Kung Fu Association.

After the officials finished their closing remarks, the crowd gathered on the library, where the fireworks were set to begin at 6:50 p.m. Not a moment too late, the fireworks lit up the sky, the shells bursting at the same height as the moon. The show lasted 10 minutes, with a finale that sounded like a battlefield, illuminating the sky and sending a cloud of white smoke drifting over the heads of the cheering onlookers. With the fireworks over, the crowd dispersed, the glowing lanterns over their heads.

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