Chinatown celebrates traditional New Year

by Beacon Staff • February 8, 2006

Its metallic body snaked onto a stage constructed at the intersection of Essex and Harrison streets, keeping in time with a gong and clanging cymbals.

Firecrackers popped as another lion joined and both lions snapped their eyes open and shut and shimmied before spectators.,A gold lion's head with eyelids trimmed in fur jutted above a crowd in Chinatown.

Its metallic body snaked onto a stage constructed at the intersection of Essex and Harrison streets, keeping in time with a gong and clanging cymbals.

Firecrackers popped as another lion joined and both lions snapped their eyes open and shut and shimmied before spectators.

As percussion players increased their drumbeats, the lions approached a small pile of cabbages and blood oranges arranged at the front of the stage.

When they grasped the offerings in their jaws, ripping them to pieces and flinging them into the streets, the crowd erupted into cheers.

"The key is to look graceful and powerful at the same time," said Connie Wong, a volunteer coordinator and dance choreographer for Gund Kwok, the Boston-based Asian Women's Lion Dance Troupe. "It's a challenge because of the weight of the costumes and the heavy lion heads. It takes a lot of conditioning to be able to do it."

Gund Kwok, the only official female Lion Dance group in North America, was among eight troops that helped Boston ring in the Chinese New Year on Feb. 5 with an all-day parade in Chinatown, just a few blocks from Emerson's campus.

The parade also featured dragons, which are bigger costumes that require several performers to wield.

Although dragons weren't as common in this parade because of space limitations, some did perform at the opening of the parade, which included appearances by Mayor Thomas Menino and Speaker of the House Salvatore DiMasi.

"There are a lot of physical requirements and so many of the dancers have also trained in martial arts," said Sam Wing, an instructor at the Calvin Chin studio. "The dances require a lot of jumping and deep stances."

The dancers, who rehearsed for months in advance to be able to perform the traditional ceremony, worked in tandem with two or more people per costume directing the movement of each animal.

Their duty was to move from doorstep to doorstep throughout Chinatown, visiting restaurants and shops while blessing each one with prosperity for the coming year.

After each traditional performance, which ended when dancers ripped bits of fruit and cabbage laid out by shop owners to symbolize offerings to the lions, each store presented the group with a gift of money in traditional red envelops, to express thanks for their blessings.

Lions, which are considered lucky animals by the Chinese, "are meant to scare away evil spirits for the New Year," said Helen Chin, manager of Calvin Chin's Martial Arts studio in Newton, which also offers Lion Dance classes. "Whether or not people really believe in the spirits, it's really just cultural observance to honor tradition."

"The calendar is based on a 12 year cycle, where each year is given an animal name to be used for astrological purposes," said Debbie Ho, program manager of Chinatown Main Street, part of a City of Boston initiative to revitalize urban neighborhoods. "The cycle goes around again every 12 years."

In Boston, many Asian residents and Chinatown businesses had been celebrating since Jan. 29 when the Year of the Dog officially began.

Chinatown Main Street, a City of Boston initiative that aids businesses in the area, helped coordinate galas and banquets throughout the week. It was also responsible for organizing the public parade.

Chinatown Main Street, which assists Chinatown businesses with new grants, helped coordinate galas and banquets throughout the week. It was also responsible for organizing the public parade.

Wing made sure to distinguish between the types of lions that were at the parade.

"These are Southern Lions," he said. "Northern lions are the ones that are shaggy like dogs." Wing said they use Southern Lions because most of the people and businesses in Chinatown come from Southern China.

As the parade progressed through Chinatown, Chin said she was pleased to find that many of the businesses were open and able to make contributions to the lions for the day's events. She said it symbolized a type of rebirth for many of the neighborhood's businesses.

"Sometimes when the parade falls on a Sunday, businesses won't be open," Chin said. "If a business is small or having a hard time, they won't accept a blessing [from the lions] because they can't afford to make a contribution. More businesses were open this year and wanted blessings, which makes me hopeful about the economy in Chinatown this year."

Menino, who made a statement at the beginning of the ceremony, said he is also optimistic about the future of the neighborhood.

"This year, and for the past couple of years, the people have really been working together to solve problems," Menino said in an interview with The Beacon.

"The police have definitely been making an effort to improve the area," she said.

Emerson student and Chinatown resident Patricia Chungsathaporn, a sophomore TV/video major, said she could see the parade from her apartment.

Chungsathaporn's father is of Chinese descent but lives in Thailand.

"There is a large Chinese population in Thailand, so many people celebrate the Chinese New Year there," she said.

Chungsathaporn, who grew up in Bangkok, celebrated the Year of the Dog by helping her roommates host a party.

"I'm interested in learning more about this part of my heritage," she said. "I think it'd be a good thing to learn about, now that China is becoming so big [economically.]"