The Lion in Winter

Today was the Big Day that comes once a year, when all the branches of Yee’s Hung Ga convene in Chinatown for the New Year parade and lion dance.

I’ve been doing this – it’s a universal tradition for kung fu schools – for thirty years now, with a few years off around 1990. From 1976 until the late 80’s I went out with Master William Chung’s umbrella organization, the Chinese Freemasons, and since 1993 it’s been with the Yee family group. Here’s how it goes:

About 8:30 a.m. everyone shows up at the “headquarters”, an old tenement building on Henry Street a block or two from the East River, on the edge of Chinatown. There are several branches of the Yee kung-fu system in New York City, and several more across the river in New Jersey, as well as some others scattered about, so it’s always a pretty big turnout – I’d say usually at least a hundred people, sometimes many more. Everybody lines up on the street outside the school in their yellow sweatshirts and baggy black pants as the lion heads, dragons, kung fu equipment, big wooden drums on carts, and other sundry items are assembled. It’s always the dead of winter, and usually everyone is half-asleep and freezing.

When everything is in place, and Master Yee gives the word, we traipse off en masse along Grand Street through the tenement blocks of the Lower East Side, past Kossar’s Bialys and an assortment of restaurant-supply shops and Italian pork stores, heading for the heart of Chinatown. Once we get to Elizabeth Street or so we break up into teams and swing into action. Today we deployed two lions, one dragon, and a large squad bearing flags and banners.

A lion team consists of a man in the head, another in the tail, a drummer, and several other “musicians” playing gongs and hand-held cymbals. The team goes along the street visiting all the Chinese businesses. It is considered good luck to have a lion dance done for your shop, so the owners come out to invite us to stop by. The team does a brief performance in front of, or even inside, the store, and in return the owner gives us a little red envelope with a few dollars inside. (Master Yee, who lives most of the time in China, teaches hundreds of poor children free of charge, and these red envelopes are an important part of his income.)

The Lion Dance is a strenuous business. The head is far from weightless, and the movements themselves are very demanding – much of it is done in a low crouch, and it is always in motion. It’s kung-fu training, really, thinly disguised. The best dancers – I’m not one of them – make the enormous, fantastically adorned lion seem very much alive. They also perform on the tops of fifteen foot poles and high stacks of rickety benches. It looks like it’s all just good fun, but believe me it is gruelingly difficult, and even the fittest dancers last only a few minutes at a time under the head.

While all this is going on the drums are pounding, cymbals are clashing, and gongs are clanging. In the old days, before they were outlawed by Rudy Giuliani, there were also firecrackers going off continuously all around one’s feet, but even without them, it is deafening. The streets are almost impassable, mobbed with tourists, cars, police, and the ordinary citizens of Chinatown, who are numerous.

The dragon, meanwhile, has its own crew, doing pretty much the same thing. The dragon is an enormous segmented thing, perhaps forty feet long. Each section is held aloft by a person, usually a kung-fu student of low rank, with a pole. The dragon has its own “music” team, with the same cacaphonous assortment of drums, cymbals and gongs.

Now imagine all of this crammed into Chinatown’s narrow streets, with the clatter and din ricocheting off the buildings. Imagine further that you and the rest of this chaotic procession will follow a convoluted and reentrant course around Lower Manhattan that probably adds up to about six or seven miles, and takes the whole day to complete. Imagine also that you are doing all of this in early February, and that it might be bitterly cold, or that there might be a raw wind and a chill rain, as there were today. And imagine that in the middle of all this you might have to stop once or twice for an hour or so in front of some important Merchant’s Association or other to form a circle in the street and put on a kung fu demonstration before resuming.

By the end of such a day even the youngest, springiest bodies have lost much of their bounce. The 49-year-old ones, the ones that have been out here doing this since 1976, are beaten to the bone.

So I must apologize, folks. I’m just too worn out to write anything today.

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  1. By waka waka waka » Blog Archive » Auld Lang Swine on February 24, 2007 at 7:19 pm

    […] These past two weekends mark the celebration of the Chinese New Year; this time around it’s the Year of the Pig. As I’ve mentioned before, kung fu schools traditionally go out in the streets to do lion and dragon dances. Ours is no exception, and as I’ve done most years since 1976, I spent the day traipsing around New York’s Chinatown in the freezing cold. […]