The crowd cheers, rising in excitement, as the air is suddenly filled with the pulsing hum of numerous drums and gongs. The rainbow figures of magical creatures, each carried by acrobats hidden inside, turn a greyish, February Manhattan into a vibrant glittering kaleidoscope of rhythmical dancing and smoothly waving colorful flags, decorated with traditional Chinese characters and symbolic animals. The annual Lunar New Year Parade of the Lion dancers, which this time took place on Feb. 24 at 11 am, is always a grandiose spectacle.
Starting from the east on Canal St. and north on Elizabeth St. and moving through Grand St. up to south on Mott St., more than 20 dancing troupes flow through Chinatown, accepting traditional offerings in the form of food and small donations, and bringing well wishes and success to local merchants. “We go to every store, every single store: they all need good luck and prosperity,” said Karlin Chan, a senior member of the Chinese Freemasons Athletic Club. “No matter what’s the weather, we always do it. It’s our tradition. We never miss the Lunar parade.”
Mr. Chan’s club is a non-profit, community-based organization which was established in 1956 to preserve the Chinese cultural heritage by sharing the knowledge of the traditional techniques of Lion dance, martial arts and multidisciplinary strength training with the youngsters of Chinatown. “Like in any culture or ethnicity there are many different disciplines: you have dancing, you have folk music, you have modern music, you have poetry, paintings,” said Mr. Chan. “Lion dance and martial arts form another discipline which we are striving to keep alive. That’s where we get our roots.”
Chan is a parade veteran, today marking his 50th year as a Lion dancer. “I started when I was 12 years old back in 1969, and this is amazing. Every time I come, I hang out, and I feel like a kid again.”
The date of celebration varies from year to year depending on the Lunar calendar, but dancing rituals, aimed at amplifying local businesses’ fortune and wealth, remain the same. “We perform specific ‘Lions eating’ routine when people feed Lions with lettuce, oranges, and red envelopes,” said Sara Lai, a younger player who is carrying one of the Lion heads this year.
The offerings go back and forth to signify a ritual connection between the blessed animals and members of the community. “We kick the two oranges first – whoever catches the orange is lucky. The lettuce is spread around the store and that is supposed to bring you luck as well,” she said.
Despite this established pattern, the highly interactive nature of Lion Dance allows for extensive audience engagement and turns every performance into unique visual spectacle for the public and an exciting challenge for the participants. “You think of a lion as a very playful cat. They like to give us little traps. Like they will hang the letters and the money in the very remote places so that it is quite hard to get it,” said Prima Lai, a Freemasons’ instructor who joined the group 16 years ago and is now supervising the beginners’ groups.
“We have to be very creative and entertaining for the customers. And it’s just a very fun experience,” she added.
Chinese New Year parades happen simultaneously in other parts of New York such as Sunset Park in Brooklyn and Flushing in Queens, but it is in Manhattan where the street party becomes especially dazzling both in terms of the stellar quality of the performance and the astounding costumes. Indeed, coherent drumming and flawless moves require constant robust preparations throughout the year. “You need to have a base in martial arts before you can play a Lion head. If your legs are not strong enough, you won’t be able to support the head and it will look awkward,” said Mr. Chan.
On an organizational level, the task of coordinating the Lion heads’ visits to the stores and briefly talking to the owners beforehand is also quite demanding. “I am the one who greets all the businesses. For the most part, it is knowing that you’re ready to be out for the whole day whether it is hot, whether it is freezing cold, just mentally prepared to be out,” said Edna X., a member of the club’s administration . “It is a part of my cultural identity. I really want to help them out.”
It is important not to confuse the Lion dancers’ parade with the general float parade which was organized in Chinatown for the next day, Sunday, Feb. 25. The event typically features a broader range of activities, including fire-cracking, juggling, and bell ringing and is not attended by the Chinese Freemasons. “In general we’ll have a midnight parade, and then New York State will have a parade, and the following Saturday on the New Year’s Day is our final parade in Manhattan,” said Prima.
The logic behind this arrangement is the troupe’s disapproval of the event’s profit-seeking interests and heavy reliance on the external sponsorship because they lead to a selective approach of which businesses to greet. “The reason we don’t participate is the Float parade’s political nature, and for us it’s time better spent going store to store in Brooklyn or Queens Chinatowns,” said Mr. Chan.“They are raising funds, and we are not. It’s a different culture.”
Despite its ancient character, a habit of watching the Lion dancers’ parade has stayed firmly incorporated in the list of New Year festivities that are most beloved by the Chinese-American community. The celebration is not considered old-fashioned but rather is equally valued by all the members of Chinatown. “Everybody watches the Lunar New Year parade, it’s like Christmas and New Year’s Eve together. There’s only one parade in the year, so you can imagine how relevant it is,” said Mr. Chan.
For many representatives of the younger generations, mastering the martial arts and developing traditional dancing skills provides a promising opportunity to strengthen their characters and enhance their physical capabilities. “It’s life-changing. When I started out, I was very undisciplined like a normal twelve years old,” said Sara. “It is honestly one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done but it makes me a better person because of it.”
Surprisingly, anyone is allowed to taste a vibrant experience of marching down the streets in the bustling wave of iridescent figures who look like inhabitants of a different millennium brought to Manhattan by some powerful magic. “It is not exclusively for Chinese. It is like with everything else – if you have the heart to learn it, you will learn it,” said Mr. Chan.
In many cases joining Lion dancers has become a tool of cultural connection within the nationally diverse families, allowing people of non-Chinese ancestry to further their understanding of traditional practices honored by their spouses, friends, or colleagues. “My wife is from Hong Kong and when I saw what the Chinese Freemasons were doing, I immediately knew this was a right group and association to align myself with,” said Robert Pore, the father of Prima and Sara, who has been involved in the troupe’s activity for more than 18 years.
“I thought it would be good for my daughters who were born in the United States to get deeper into their Chinese cultural background,” Pore added.
The Chinese Freemasons’ lessons of the Lion dance serve as a vehicle of intergenerational unity, enabling the older members of the Chinatown community to invigorate a sense of cultural belonging and national pride in hearts of the US-born youth. This helps to ensure the survival of the traditional practices and highlight their significance in context of modern values. “This group was involved in the Chinese people democracy fighting against the Qing dynasty and championing a lot of Western ideas,” said Sara. “People do not really know that history behind, but it’s very relevant and it’s there. I’ve learned a lot of my nation’s history, what my people value, what they care about.”
In the short run, a parade showcases the beauty and sophistication of the Lion Dance to the outsiders, amplifying their awareness and appreciation of the gross Chinese contribution to the overall cultural heritage of American society. “A lot of my American friends will text me like wondering when the parade is going to happen,” said Sonia Lee, who has been around the Freemasons troupe since her early childhood. “They are waiting for it the whole year.”
As the Lunar New Year parade of Lion dancers has grown into a popular contemporary practice, transcending the “remember-the-history” validity of the ancient custom, it is being preserved as much due to general respect or national loyalty as it is out of sincere love and emotional dedication.
“All of our new members were born and raised in the United States. Those who live far from a major metropolitan Chinatown often become westernized and don’t even speak Chinese,” said Mr. Chan. “But they come here and they want to participate. This is their culture and they feel proud of it.”