Firecracker Run Brings Thousands to Los Angeles’ Chinatown

Image: The Los Angeles Chinatown Firecracker Run 2016

The Los Angeles Chinatown Firecracker Run expects more than 5,000 adult runners, 1,200 cyclists, and close to 1,000 young children. Mike Danenberg / Los Angeles Chinatown Firecracker Run

LOS ANGELES -- On a windy Tuesday evening in January, just a few weeks after the new year, the group of volunteers who organize the annual Los Angeles Firecracker Run convene in the conference room at the Kaiser Permanente in Chinatown.

The committee includes a total of 30 or so individuals, but not everyone shows up to the weekly meetings. Tonight, about 20 of the team sit around the large conference table, discussing the upcoming race — the organization's 38th — over a meal of tamales from Alberto's on Temple Street. Some wear business attire, having arrived straight after their workdays. Others are in faded T-shirts from past Firecracker runs, artist renditions of the year's Chinese zodiac symbol silkscreened on the back. In 2016, the run will celebrate the Year of the Monkey.

Jeanne Tong, a retired teacher, presides over the meeting. She's been on the Firecracker committee for 16 years, though this is her first go as the event's director. Wearing a blue-and-white windbreaker and matching pants, Tong reads aloud reports emailed from absent committee members, and then moves down the agenda, ceding the floor in turn to each of the volunteers chairing the various aspects of the Firecracker Run suite of events: bike ride, kiddie run, entertainment, the race courses (5K and 10K), marketing, vendor booths, and more.

When Tong first joined the committee, she recalled participation sitting around 900 runners. "It's grown exponentially since then, just really exploded, in terms of the size and scope," Tong told NBC News. Now, she expects more than 5,000 adult runners, 1,200 cyclists, and close to 1,000 young children in the kiddie run.

"And people come to enjoy the festival," she said. "It's a family event."

Over the Feb. 20-21 weekend this year, the Firecracker Run will stage the Firecracker Festival to accompany its running and bike events, featuring live musical entertainment and cultural performances. Lion dancers, taiko drummers, a capella singers, folklórico dancers, and more will take to the main stage in Chinatown's Central Plaza.

"The opening ceremonies are unlike any other race," Katy Murakami, the committee chair in charge of booking entertainment and organizing the festival logistics, told NBC News. "We light up one-hundred thousand firecrackers to kick off the run, and it's pretty amazing to see."

Murakami, who has been a volunteer with the run for six years, said she got involved because her sister and cousin were helping out on the committee, and her uncle, Edmund Soohoo, is the Firecracker Run's founding race director.

Soohoo now sits on the organization's board of directors, and still attends almost every meeting of the volunteer committee. "Our goal is to let people experience Chinatown in a different way," Soohoo told NBC News. "Not coming for food only, not coming because they're buying trinkets at the gift shop. They're coming to run, to do something fun and healthy, and to celebrate a cultural event — the Lunar New Year. It's about sharing the diversity of Southern California."

“The opening ceremonies are unlike any other race,” Katy Murakami, the committee chair in charge of booking entertainment and organizing the festival logistics, told NBC News. Mike Danenberg / Courtesy of the Los Angeles Chinatown Firecracker Run

Thirty-eight years ago, Soohoo gathered a team of Chinatown stakeholders and others outside of the community familiar with organizing large-scale running events in order to facilitate conversation about the feasibility of starting up a 10K run. "We were people who took an activist, progressive role in community projects," he said. "Our goal has always been to give back to the community by donating the proceeds back to Chinatown schools and nonprofit organizations."

Since its inception, the Firecracker Run has granted over $500,000 to organizations such as the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, Chinatown Senior Citizens Service Center, Friends of the Chinatown Library, Chinatown Service Center, as well as the local Chinatown elementary schools.

The Firecracker Festival will feature live musical entertainment and cultural performances for families to accompany the Firecracker Run. Mike Danenberg / Courtesy of the Los Angeles Chinatown Firecracker Run

Two years ago, the Firecracker Run board of directors launched the Firecracker Fund. Administered in partnership with the Asian Pacific Community Fund, the program invites Southern California nonprofits serving the diverse needs of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to apply for $5,000 in grant support each cycle.

In addition to stepping up the organization's philanthropic efforts to communities outside of Chinatown, the Firecracker Fund creates an opportunity for the younger members of the committee to learn about philanthropy that addresses culturally-specific needs. "It's a chance for the young people on our committee to learn leadership skills," Soohoo said. "They get hands-on experience on how to evaluate nonprofits and the work they do."

Soohoo is quick to acknowledge that "the young people help us stay innovative, to help us attract new audiences to the race" — that means an active social media presence, creative partnerships with local artists and designers on Firecracker merchandise, and the addition of a post-race beer garden with libations provided by local breweries.

Medals hang on a statue of Bruce Lee at the 2015 Los Angeles Firecracker Run. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Chinatown Firecracker Run

At the January planning meeting attended by NBC News, the talk turns to the contingency plan in case of rain. "We have those ponchos we bought a couple years ago," offers up one of the committee members.

"It's only poured once in the last 16 years," Tong says.

"Would we sell the ponchos?" another member asks. "Or just give them out?"

"The fact that we have those ponchos means it's not going to rain," a third answers, and almost everyone at the table chuckles at this ironic truism.

The meeting continues. Murakami reports that she's been in talks with the Bruce Lee Foundation. Lee's daughter, Shannon, has agreed to make an appearance at the opening ceremonies for a meet-and-greet and to participate in the firecracker lighting ceremony. Members of the board fire off questions about whether the necessary permits have been secured, if local politicians and dignitaries have been invited. There is more discussion: on barricades and street closure procedures, hiring professional security or simply recruiting more race-day volunteers, the number of cups needed for water stations along the course.

“It's a family event," organizers say of the Los Angeles Chinatown Firecracker Run. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Chinatown Firecracker Run

"The committee is a little like a dysfunctional family," Murakami confesses later, laughing. "Everyone can't have the same opinions, so there's sometimes arguments back and forth. But everyone's heart is in the right place, for the race, for the community, and for the beneficiaries."

She pauses a moment, then adds, "We love each other no matter what. It's a real community. I think the runners can definitely feel that about our event."

Follow NBC Asian America on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.