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A dance of lions

A photographer’s encounter with one of the largest Lunar New Year celebrations in New York’s Chinatown.

February 17, 2023

On Feb. 4, over 20 lion dancing groups packed the streets of Chinatown for the “Super Saturday” parade. Amid drumming and cheers, the lion dancers went door to door through businesses in the neighborhood, spreading their blessings and celebrating the new year with the local community. This is one of Chinatown’s largest celebrations during the Lunar New Year, and one that traces far back in time and space. 

A lion dance performer marched out of a building with red bricks.
A lion marching out of the headquarters of “Hong Ching,” the New York Chinese Freemasons Athletics Club, starting its daylong performance throughout Chinatown. (Qianshan Weng for WSN)

Lion dancing originated in China and later spread to other cultures in East Asia and Southeast Asia. Chinese culture sees the lion as a guardian who drives away evil spirits and brings luck and wealth. Lion dances are prevalent during Lunar New Year, weddings, opening ceremonies and other festive occasions.

A group of lion dancers holding red banners and a lion head walking down a street.
Members of the Chinese Freemasons Athletics Club march down Elizabeth Street. The organization, founded in 1956, is one of the oldest lion-dancing teams in New York City’s Chinatown. (Qianshan Weng for WSN)

The appearance and the choreography of the lions vary across different regions. The lions seen in New York’s Chinatown follow a tradition known as the “Southern Lion,” which started in Guangdong, China — where some of the earliest Chinese immigrants to the United States came from.

Three lion dance performers stand side by side among a crowd. Each lion is wielded by two people, one standing on the shoulder of another.
The three lions standing upright are named “Lau” (yellow), “Kwan” (red), and “Cheung” (black) — three generals during the “Three Kingdom” period. (Qianshan Weng for WSN)

The Southern Lions draw design inspirations from the character masks in traditional Cantonese Opera. The lions are named after characters from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

A lion dancer crosses the street holding a lion head.
A lion crossing Canal Street. (Qianshan Weng for WSN)
Lion dancers wielding two red lion costumes in front of a supermarket with a crowd standing around.
Lion dancers from the New York Choy Lay Fut Dance Team performing outside the Hong Kong Supermarket on Elizabeth Street. (Qianshan Weng for WSN)
A person wearing a big-headed Buddha mask guides a lion to its offerings, a bowl of grapefruit and pastries.
The big-headed Buddha guides a lion to its offerings — grapefruit and pastries. (Qianshan Weng for WSN)

The big-headed Buddha, played by a person with a laughing mask on his head and a cattail fan in his hand, is another popular character in many lion dances. During a performance, the Buddha guides and “plays” with the lion. 

During the parade, the lions went into every store in the Chinatown neighborhood, interacting with local store owners. The business owners see the lions as a sign of prosperity and good luck and would, in return, offer a red packet — a symbol that a business that will thrive in the coming year.

An employee behind a counter hands a lion dancer a red packet.
An employee at Double Crispy Bakery offering a red packet to a lion. (Qianshan Weng for WSN)

Some businesses hung lettuces and oranges in front of their stores, inviting the lions to “eat” the offerings. In Mandarin, lettuce and oranges are homonyms of “good wealth” and “luck.” After dancing in front of the store, the dancer playing the lion’s tail would lift up the dancer wielding the head. The lion-head dancer would then stand on the shoulder of their partner and take the offerings.

A lion dancer catches the lettuce and orange with the costume’s mouth.
A lion “eating” lettuce and an orange hanging on the storefront of Manna House Bakery on Mott Street. (Qianshan Weng for WSN)

After the lion had “eaten” the lettuce, the dancers would then kick the lettuce toward the storefront. Contrary to common belief, lettuce scattering on the ground means to cover the ground with good fortune.

A lion dancer kicking a lettuce towards a Cantonese restaurant.
A lion dancer kicking the lettuce towards “Green Garden Village,” a Cantonese restaurant on Grand Street. (Qianshan Weng for WSN)

Choreography in lion dancing is largely based on Chinese martial arts. To be a successful lion dancer, one needs to be a competent martial artist first.

“When I first started, you learn all the basics, the Kung Fu, they teach you all the martial arts stances,” said Kyle Lai, a lion dancer at the Chinese Freemasons Athletics Club. “When you get better, they let you play the head.”

A lion dancer lifting his partner to make the lion costume rise during a performance.
Lion dancers lifting their partners to make the lion rise during a performance. (Qianshan Weng for WSN)
A lion dancer lifting his partner to make the lion costume rise during a performance.
Lion dancers lifting their partners to make the lion rise during a performance. (Qianshan Weng for WSN)
A lion dancer standing on top of a two-story tall pole in front of a crowd on the street.
In front of the On Leong Chinese Merchants Association, a lion from Choy Lay Fut stands on top of a two-story tall pole. (Qianshan Weng for WSN)

“A lot of people who are born here, they know lion dancing, they see it, but they don’t know what it needs or what you need to go through,” said Bill Wong, a lion dancer at the Chinese Freemasons Athletics Club for more than 30 years. “It’s a rigorous process — it’s like a three-year process for people. ”

A person wearing a black jacket with red Chinese characters playing drums on a chariot with an American flag in the back.
Bill Wong plays the drum on a chariot. (Qianshan Weng for WSN)

Despite the cold weather, the lion dance performances managed to attract a large crowd on the streets, tourists and community members alike. People applauded the moves of lion dancers, taking pictures with the lion costumes and petting them after offering a red packet.

Lion dancers are surrounded by a large crowd of audience.
Lions surrounded by a large crowd. (QIanshan Weng for WSN)
A child handing a red packet into a lion dancer’s costume’s mouth.
A child feeding a red packet into a lion’s mouth. (Qianshan Weng for WSN)

Lion dances accompanied the earliest Chinese immigrants as they traveled and found roots in New York. For some residents of Chinatown, the dancing of the lions is a sign of the community coming together, overcoming challenges, and working toward a brighter future.

“It’s a way of reinstating the faith and hope that we have in being together, in celebration and ritual, in holding on to the traditions that we hold on to as a Chinatown,” said Gary Lum, whose family owns Wing on Wo & Co, one of the oldest stores in Chinatown. “I have been here for 68 years, so I hold that in my heart. This memory of this ritual, this tradition, the celebration is in my heart. It grounds me, the drumming grounds me, it awakens an energy in me to continue on.”

A group of people surrounding three lion dancers performing on the street.
The Chinatown community surrounds three lions performing on Mott Street. (Qianshan Weng for WSN)
A lion dancer waving a red flag on a stage in front of a store.
A lion waving a “Wing on Wo” flag in front of the store. (Qianshan Weng for WSN)

Contact Qianshan Weng at [email protected]

Developed for Web by Jason Alpert-Wisnia

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