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  • Catching Up: Santana, Taj Mahal and a déjà vu ‘Blue Christmas’

    Posted by Ben Fong-Torres

    By Ben Fong-Torres It’s short shrift time. I have a life that’s ripe (and slightly wrinkled) for blogs and tweeting; for facebooking and updating. I’m just no good at it. My last column here on AsianConnections was about the memorial in late July for my sister Shirley. My last posting on the authors’ site, Redroom, was about a radio promo tour I did (20 stops, all on the phone...

New Year Parade: Remembering the First Time

Ben Fong-Torres

New Year Parade: Remembering the First Time.

It's the Year of the Tiger "insert your own joke here" and, as I prepare to co-host the telecast of the San Francisco Chinese New Year Parade on KTVU for the 14th year, I've been taking looks back to past parades, all the way back to the first one.

The memories would be pretty dim, if not for the fact that I wrote about it soon after surviving it. Having gone through two co-anchor changes (I've been with Julie Haener since 2001), and with three Emmy Awards under our belts, I find it fun to read about that first time out, in the KTVU tent on Market Street (We've since moved to Union Square).

It was February 22, 1997, the Year of the Ox. Here's how my first ride went.

The first explosions jolted Elaine Corral, the co-anchor of the nightly newscast on San Francisco's KTVU.

But it was just firecrackers. Workers on the Embarcadero end of Market Street were beginning the process of carpeting the boulevard with the red shreds of paper from burnt firecrackers. It was the first of many explosions to come.

Sitting next to Elaine, I was no less jittery. We were trying to rehearse for the station's coverage of the Chinese New Year Parade. Elaine, of course, is a pro anchor. But, for a co-host, she was being saddled with a first-timer: me.

Sure, I've done some time on the tube, but usually as a subject of interviews, and usually when the subject is the death of a rock star. But co-anchoring a two-hour live event? Reading from a TelePrompter? Describing floats and marching bands?

It was all new to me.

When KTVU invited me, however, I couldn't say no. After all, who doesn't love a parade? Actually, not me. At least, not live. For years, I've avoided going to the parade, far preferring to catch it on television. You can't beat having both volume and crowd control, all from your couch.

I figured that the station was looking to ramp up the Asianess, shall we say, of the broadcast.

In years past, half of the anchor team was a former Miss Chinatown, and while she held her own, her co-host, Steve McPartlin, an affable sort, dominated, with jokes, random comments, and mispronunciations of Chinese words.

Now, as the new co-host, I'd get to work with Corral; I'd probably have a pretty good view of the festivities, and, as part of my research, I might finally figure out the difference between hoy neen and hawn neen. That's one (or two) of those things I grew up with, in a Chinese-American family, without knowing their meanings.

While I did my research, the KTVU and Chinese New Year Parade teams were hard at work.

Preparation for a typical parade begins six months ahead of time; the station has a writer at work three weeks before, gathering information from the participating groups and meeting constantly with David Lei of the Chinese Culture Foundation, other parade coordinators, and KTVU staffers.

In the days before the parade, Elaine and I attended two script-reading sessions at the station, and that was it. Our next meeting would be in the broadcast tent on Market Street, where we'd get a few minutes for rehearsals, and where I'd see and try out a TelePrompter for the first time in my life.

As it turned out, the Prompter would only come into play at the top and bottom of the broadcast. Besides, there were plenty of other things to worry about. Just 11 minutes before air time, for example, the small monitors, on which we'd see what was going over the air, went kaput.

Techies scrambled around on hands and knees, shaking and jiggling equipment and cables. "Get the backup generator," someone cried.

Two frazzled minutes later, we got our mini-TVs back. A plug had loosened. Just slightly frayed, we hit the air, I got through the first hellos all right, and we sailed for a few minutes. Then the scheduled order of the parade began clashing with reality.

The police chief and the fire chief, who were supposed to be in separate vehicles, were riding together. Script change! The scavenger marching unit, which had four different components, showed up with one we hadn't expected, and the others were out of the scripted order. Ad lib!

Production assistant Bonnie Lee, sitting beside me for just such emergencies, reached over and ripped a page out of my script just as I was getting to it. Other times, she hurriedly ran her pen over chunks of script. Floats, bands and cars fell in and out of order, and Elaine and I simply had to go with the flow.

Sometimes, Elaine, used to talking as soon as she got a "Go!" from the director inher headset, would read my lines, and I'd respond by reading hers.

Before the parade, Elaine had offered some friendly words of wisdom. "This is not going to be fun," she said. "To the audience, it may look like it, but we're going to be working."

We certainly did. And thank Buddha for Elaine. Whenever I froze, she was there with New Year's factoids. I worked in bits and pieces about my childhood love of lion dancing, about the lunar calendar, and about Chinese New Year traditions I’d clipped from various sources, ranging from Chinatown newspapers to a Tsingtao placemat, and it all worked out fine.

The last strings of firecrackers exploded right on time, I gave Elaine a traditional lay see envelope, we wrapped it up, and, afterwards, she still had her hearing.

The next day, we learned that the parade had drawn some 750,000 spectators, and, later, that the broadcast had also earned excellent ratings.

Elaine had worn red (jacket) and gold (jewelry) for good luck, and it had worked. Me? I learned that "hawn neen" is the closing of the old year, celebrated on New Year's Eve, and "hoy neen" means "opening the year."

And I can say that my co-anchor was wrong. It was fun.

Now that it's over.

Turn on KTVU Fox 2 to watch Ben and his co-host Julie Haener broadcast live from the Southwest Chinese New Year Parade in San Francisco Saturday, February 27, 2010 at 6:00 - 8:00 pm Pacific Standard Time (PST).