As thousands of Chicagoans lined the streets of Chinatown this past Sunday afternoon to welcome in the Year of the Snake, the usual vigor and cultural tenacity associated with Chinese New Year celebrations seemed to be missing. The float of bagpipe players–parading up Wentworth Avenue alongside community figures and firecracker dispensers–certainly didn’t help. The dragon dance contingent was small and kind of lackluster in its performance, and even Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s appearance to officially proclaim the New Year didn’t bolster the size of the crowd to the organizer’s expected turnout of 30,000 people.
Yet those who waited out the initial 5,000-person throng to watch the lion dance, performed by members of the Hung Ting Youth Association, were in for a real treat. Moving from shop to shop to shop in Chinatown’s narrow commercial center, just off Chinatown Square, the group spread good blessings for the New Year with their elaborate lion costumes. A group of about ten teenagers took turns dancing under the costumes, following a pattern of entering a store, posing with the owners and patrons, dancing and bowing in front of the store, and jumping–or sometimes utilizing step ladders–to “eat” lettuce attached by strings to the eaves of the storefronts. The lions bring good luck and take away bad luck, and the shopkeepers reward them with the lettuce, which represents prosperity, and usually some money in a traditional red envelope.
Julie Lam, co-owner of AJ Housewares & Gifts, said the lions bring business to the store, apparently in the form of small children begging their parents for party snaps. She and her staff were more than happy to exchange luck for vegetables with the lion dancers. “We’re still here,” she said, “so it must work.”
The dancers made their rounds to each candy store, restaurant, toyshop, beauty salon and the like, spurred on by a massive drum and set of gongs as well as group leaders eager to reach every store that afternoon. Shouted commands of “Bow!” and “Next store!” filled the air, along with the pops and shrieks from firecrackers and children up and down the shopping center. Ida Feng-Hoang, the group’s leader, said practices are few and far between, and most preparation happens in the two to three hours the group sets aside to warm-up before its events, which include weddings, parties, and birthdays. Put another way, by group member Keith Hickory, they “just try to keep it old school.”
The drum they use is an attraction itself: made from genuine cow skin by craftsmen in China and about the size of an actual lion, it cost over $7,000 when the community purchased it over forty years ago, and it has completely retained its quality. The same man plays it every year and, according to Hickory, no one knows his name or where he is from.