Michael Jee, the United Eastern Athletic Associations lion dance coordinator, works with members of the Junior Dragon Team, who will be visiting Chinatown businesses Feb. 24.
By Brooke Edwards
With knees bent low in a formal bow, 15-year-old Peter Wong is almost entirely hidden beneath the costume of a giant, brightly painted traditional Chinese lion head.
He comes out to greet us, narrates Jonathan Choy in a serious, low voice.
Peter swings the enormous head from side to side, straining his fingers to open and close the flap that is the lions mouth.
He is looking for food, Choy continues, the tension in his voice growing.
Suddenly, Peter lifts the 30-pound head high in the air, shaking the giant puppet until its fur trembles and its silver bells ring out in competition with the thundering drum that keeps his pace.
Hes sees something over there! Choy exclaims, pointing in the lions direction.
Stomping his feet and straining the muscles in his thin arms, Peter continues his intense performance until the drum is silent and Choy announces, And thats the end of the routine.
With celebrations to welcome in the Chinese Lunar year of the pig, 4705, fast approaching, Peter and the rest of the United East Athletic Association lion dance troupe are hard at work, rehearsing for their first performance.
Though not a part of the highly publicized and, they say, Americanized parade on Feb. 25 a week after the actual start of the New Year on Feb. 18 the U.E.A.A. troupe will be performing alongside dozens of other lion dancers in the more traditional parade the day before.
On the 24th, explains Choy, 43, president of the U.E.A.A., we spend the entire day going around to every business in Chinatown and performing for them to wish them good luck in the coming year. As an experienced lion dancer himself, Choy said, After seven hours out there with the head you either call the ambulance or go home and soak yourself.
For Peter, participating in the lion dance is the first traditional Chinese activity he has been involved in. The lion dance dates back to ancient China and is thought to bring good luck and to scare off evil spirits.
I do things with my family, Peter said. For New Year we clean the house and give money to the younger children. He said he still gets some money, but not as much as when we were younger.
When Peter told his parents he was joining the lion dance troupe, he said, Theyre like great, youre doing something Chinese for once!
We have to rejuvenate our youth, Choy said. I was raised in Hong Kong and I know its not just about fun. We teach them the tradition behind the dance.
Passing on the tradition is what motivates Choy to volunteer countless hours to the U.E.A.A. on top of his fulltime job as executive director of a Cantonese radio station in Chinatown. He said the reason is simply, Because were Asian.
In spite of the cultural significance, Choy admits, There is a commercial side to it.
During the parade, local businesses give the volunteer lion dancers red envelopes with money to thank them for their performance and to pass on the good luck. This money then goes back into supporting the program.
The U.E.A.A. is a non-profit organization, offering activities such as basketball, chess, ping-pong, dragon boat teams and summer programs to local youth free of charge. Choy said, Associations like ours depend on these events to get money to operate.
The cost for just one lion head costume, which Choy orders from Hong Kong, is $800.
Though there will be organized firecracker and firework demonstrations as the New Year begins this weekend, Choy said Mayor Giulianis decision to crackdown on the publics previous free-flow of firecrackers during the parade is a mixed blessing.
Ten years ago when people could use firecrackers and fireworks, we used to collect about $8,000, Choy said. Now it is half that much. He said the loud noise added to the adrenaline and excitement of the event, making people give more.
However, he said, Now that there arent fireworks to burn them, one lions head will last two to three years if it doesnt rain or snow.
While this years parade will be the first performance for Peter and his U.E.A.A. troupe, Eugene Lin has been a lion dancer for more than seven years.
Lin, 23, is a member of the largest and arguably most prestigious troupe in the city, the New York United Lion & Dragon Dance Troupe.
Lin was born in China and moved to New York when he was 10 years old. He works part time, is a student at Technical Career Institute and hopes to one day join the Air Force. He also practices lion dancing for up to nine hours a week year round.
Every Chinese New Year since I have been here I have come out to watch the lion dancers, Lin said. He said the troupe coach approached him and urged him to join, and I decided to give it a try.
We practice every Sunday all year, Lin said. Since the parade is close, we have been practicing every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Each practice ranges from two to five hours long. And it all leads up to a 15-minute-long parade routine.
In addition to the parade, Lins troupe will perform at dinners, store grand openings and other celebrations related to the New Year. For the whole month were completely booked, Lin said.
Still, the parade is Lins favorite. Thats the most fun day of the whole year.
While controlling the lion head is the most esteemed position, it takes two people to make a lion dance team. A 10-foot tail of thick, embellished cloth trails from the head and, for the last year, Lins partner Eric Lee has been with him for what he calls countless performances.
The person in the front has to use their leg muscles a lot more to jump around, Lin said. The person in the back has to use their back and shoulders to lift the tail, which is actually heavier than the head.
Alongside the lion dancers, Lin said there will also be performances by dragon dancers from his troupe. Though he has never performed as a dragon dancer, Lin said that it is more difficult because the costume is heavier and you have to run the entire time. There are also anywhere from seven to 20 people in one dragon costume, making it much more difficult to coordinate your moves with the rest of the team, Lin said.
There is also a little-known troupe of unicorn dancers who will be performing in the parade as well, as another symbol of good fortune for the coming year.
In spite of all the hours Lin puts in to train and perform with his troupe, he does not receive any pay. As with the U.E.A.A. troupe, any red envelopes that Lins group receives are given as contributions to his sponsoring organization, the Chinese Merchants Association.
We dont get any money, Lin said, we just do it for the tradition.