Celebrating the Year of the Monkey

Students and faculty collaborate on this year’s float and present a taste of the Academy’s story


Three monkeys and the Monkey King take center stage during the Southwest Airlines Chinese New Year Parade. Photo by Bob Toy.

The Southwest Airlines Chinese New Year Parade in San Francisco was a stunning event on Saturday. Feb. 20 as city streets were blocked off and citizens flocked to the path of the parade where 150 companies and schools participated. Academy of Art University students and faculty were among the excited crowd and participated yet again this year for the Chinese Year of the Monkey. The concept design for the float this year is directly correlated to the Chinese story of the Monkey King. So many people involved with the Academy made a tremendous effort for this year’s parade float and musical number.

Bob Toy, publications and special events project manager at the Academy, explained that the float was to represent the waterfall that most of the monkeys at the Mountain of Fruit and Flower were afraid to go through. However, Sun Wukong (the Monkey King), leaped through the water to the other side and came back out alive, declaring that he would be their Monkey King. “Sun Wukong fearlessly went through the waterfall and also discovers a cave behind the waterfall, that cave became the monkey’s cave haven. All the monkeys crowned Sun Wukong as the handsome Monkey King,” Toy explained. Being that it’s the year of the Monkey, it seemed to be the perfect story to share. It’s a cherished classic amongst the Chinese and it was important to Toy to share it with many who would be attending the parade and might not be familiar with the tale. Production design student, Hawra, agreed that this was really a special event for all. “I really love celebrating all cultural festivals no matter where I am, I love to participate and be part of that culture. For me this is one of the ways to learn about the other [cultures]. I want to thank Bob Toy for this opportunity, and I hope there is more to come,” she said. 

The parade is a great and well-known celebration. This year there were people from all over the United States, as well as countries like Mexico, France and England. It’s a fun way to educate oneself on other cultures. 

The design for the Academy’s float was very specific. “The elements of design are [the] mountain, waterfall, flowers and the Monkey King and his followers,” said Toy. In fact, the float really connects to the arts and some of what the Academy is all about. “The Monkey King represented the Academy founder and all the artist instructors, through the waterfall [and] the discovery of Academy of Art University’s art haven. The dancers represented all ‘artists.’ The float is to celebrate creativity and the arts of the Year of the Monkey,” Toy shared. The float was very expressive and everyone involved not only had a wonderful time participating, but utilizing their skills and learning more about their specific art forms.

Both faculty members and students collaborated together in order to produce a spectacular story to showcase a taste as to what the Academy is all about. Paul Theren, who is an instructor in the School of Motion Pictures and Television (MPTV), advised Toy along with Michael Caputo on the making of the Monkey King mask and created it in his prosthetics class. “My involvement was to help coach and advise the Academy … students who volunteered to participate in the parade,” shared Theren. “The artistic challenge was to create an amusing, yet visually strong Year of the Monkey character.” 

Additionally, Theren explained the tedious process of making the masks. “Prosthetic makeup is very complex. Each mask will only fit the actor whose face gets molded.” It is a very detailed process involving “a mold of the performer’s face … with a skin safe silicone molding material.” Then they must cast “the actor’s face from the original mold in a material similar to cement.” From the previous steps, “the artist sculpts a character design with clay onto the cement life casting. Another mold is made over the life casting, with the clay character design.” What they end up with is a prosthetic makeup application on the actor’s face with latex or silicone and then makeup painted on top. 

“As faculty and students, we represent the brilliant artistic talent of Academy of Art University,” said Theren. “It’s important to bring awareness to our students that prosthetic makeup, theatre, television and film classes exist, and are being taught at our school.” 

MPTV instructor Andrea Pino did the makeup and face painting for the dancers. Karen Hirst, another instructor for MPTV helped with all dancing and choreography. Not only were these instructors more than happy to help with the float and performances, but Academy mailroom employee Dennis Cruz and former Academy employee Michael Chu were enthusiastic in their volunteer efforts on the float as well. “It was a great honor to assist one of my favorite makeup instructors Andrea Pino with the [Monkey King’s] mask and adding the finishing touches to the other three monkeys. It was great to see the process and it was a great learning experience,” said Hawra of her involvement with the parade and working with one of her faculty mentors. Graduate student Jason Kuo composed the music for the float, in addition to also composing music for the combat scene portrayed by child actors in the parade.

Fortunately, our Academy actors performing on the float were in high spirits to share their experience of what it’s like to be a part of the parade snaking through San Francisco. Acting student Adianez Crespo said, “Being a part of the float was a great experience. I had such an adrenaline rush throughout the entire experience, which gave me the strength to dance my heart out from beginning to end.” 

The dancers said that the fog machine on the float really helped create a dramatic effect, which allowed them visualize the exotic waterfall mountain from the legendary tale and thus, inspiring them a great deal with their movements. Crespo spoke about her experience and teachings from the Academy that helped her prepare for the role. “As an actor, I have had a lot of tools [that] I was able to use as part of this experience, especially from my movement class. My [instructor] Letitia Bartlett, has taught me how to transform my body to bring my mask to life, and stay in character.” 

In addition to collaborating with Academy mentors, it is evident that the students enjoyed their experience in the parade and watching the busy event unfolding all around them. Crespo said, “I really enjoyed the parade. I have always seen it from afar, never up close. I never [could have imagined] I would ever be this up close and personal. I love how colorful everything is and how it brings people together.” 

Hawra had a similar reaction to having some of the greatest seats in the house during the time of the parade with more than enough flying lions, vibrant floats and sleek cars. “I was very excited, it was my first time actually seeing this stunning parade up close...I think the parade is a good way of meeting new people.”

Sang-Chi (Sonia) Su, who played one of the three monkeys on the float shared, “I have only been in San Francisco for seven  months, and I [felt] the cultural excitement of the parade and I feel so honored especially when it comes to celebrating our Chinese New Year.”

Not only was this year’s Southwest Airlines Chinese New Year Parade exciting, but also it was a wonderful opportunity for students and faculty from across the university to collaborate and celebrate different backgrounds and cultures.