恭喜发财 Gung Hei Fhat Choi! Happy “Chinese” New Year. I know everybody is politically correct and fond of saying “Lunar” New Year, and I know everybody wants to be all inclusive, but to me it will always be Chinese New Year. As I sit here watching this gorgeous first day of the Year of the Pig, seeing all the children out from school (which we were never allowed to do; we had to play hooky to enjoy the first day of Chinese New Year), and everyone dressed with dabs of red, and all the oranges, golden pomelos and giant stalks of sugar cane being sold on the street, the red and white pussywillows, and all the decorations, I can only stretch back and remember the Chinese New Years that I knew as a teenager. Today, it’s a little bit different. Back then, as I’m sure a lot of my Kung Fu brothers can remember, the streets filled with people, and the days were frigid and cold. We had to lion dance all day long in the snow and ice, but we were kept warm by the incessant barrage of fireworks literally being thrown at us from rooftops of rival factions in the most friendly of manners to bring us joy and prosperity and eradicate all the bad omens. It was the best and the worst at the same time. 

At that time, the lions were huge. They were classified as number ones, twos and threes, and most of the time we had a number one, which is the biggest. It felt like you had your own studio apartment, and I know a lot of the teams as well as ours would hide weapons inside, butterfly knives and the like, waiting for the chance to possibly encounter a rival team and have a throwdown. So is the mind of a teenager. The streets filled with red paper so high that it almost reached your knees. The smoke was so thick, black and grey that it clouded your mind and left the fragrance of gunpowder singed into your hair and face. The firecracker paper was coming out of your ears and your underwear and crevices you didn’t even know you had. You had burn marks on your legs, and you didn’t even know where they came from. Every team was drumming as loudly and powerfully as they could, playing their music to try to overpower and outdance the other teams. It was relatively friendly, but still had that edge of competitiveness. You knew that every other team would be judging you by the way that you lion danced. It was the most amazing time that I ever had in my young life. Nothing could compare to the joy, energy and anxiety of coming out on the first day of the new year. You always had to watch out for the oldtimers. The old dudes in the street would watch you, and they knew what they were looking at. Whenever we came upon a patch of old guys, you had to watch out, because they would know if you were doing it right or not.

At that time, Chinatown was still a hotbed of controversy with rival gangs owning particular parts of the neighborhood and streets where it wasn’t always safe to go. I remember after certain incidents every team was assigned at least one or two uniformed police officers to escort you through your route. I can remember several years in a row that there was a lot of tension. In one incident that I can remember (although I can’t say names), there was another team that was threatening to come out and fight with whoever crossed their lines. It was so tense that I can remember having to get bullet-proof vests just in case a shooting went down. It was no joke, there was that much tension. Another year, it was so volatile that I can remember one of my teachers saying, “Here, here’s a Kwan Do.” I said, “What do you want me to do, Sifu?” He said, “Stand next to me, and if anybody comes next to me, chop them!” I was all of 14. As I said, it was the best and the worst at the same time. One of the best things was when we were done, the team would always go out and we’d have our own Chinese banquet. Of course, there was copious amounts of food. We couldn’t get our fill, and the Tsingtao beer flowed freely. Ah, them was the days. I long for those gone by days and somehow know they will never return. The camaraderie, friendships and bonding that we derived from being together not only as Kung Fu brothers but lion dancing for Chinese year, means a lot to me and is something special that I would never trade for anything. 

Today, there are a lot of different styles of lions, a lot of hybrids, a lot of different teams using different methods. The lion dance that we do is from southern China. I remember when we were young and full of energy, we would always have the three traditional lions. They were: Lau Be, the rainbow or colorful lion; Kwan Gung, the red and black lion of the god of war; and Cheung Fei, the black, green and white lion. They were the three brothers of the peach orchard from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. They showed the power and the glory and personified the culture of Chinese New Year. We were always taught in the traditional manner. 

The lion dance itself is much more than what normal people understand. It’s a spiritual, symbolic dance done to bring good fortune and sweep away all the bad luck of the previous year. It’s not a dance of a puppy or a puppet. We call the lion “Sing See.” This lion is descended from the heavens and has the power and spirit to eradicate all bad omens and evil. We were always taught to treat the lion respectfully in its handling. The lion is sacred to the Kung Fu school and is its mascot. It was never approached lightly, and I can remember, we were never allowed to play the lion head until we ascended to a much higher level. It was always the most senior guys in the club that played the lion head. You had to start at the back end, playing cymbals, gong, and eventually the tail. Slowly, they would train you to do the lion head, but that look a long time and there was a lengthy pecking order. The lion dance that we were taught stemmed from the Kung Fu system that you learned. It utilized all the stances, posture and bridge hand work that is prominent in the Kung Fu that you study and should be displayed within your movement. The lion dances from the province of Canton taught to us by our teachers were fierce and powerful, moving through the streets to the beats of the war drum driving you forward to usher in the auspices and fortune of the new year. We were so honored, and I am still honored to this day, to try my best to pass along whatever little I could absorb from my teachers and give it to this next generation. 

In trying my best to preserve what I’ve learned as best as I could and bring it forward, every year we go out and do our shows. We were lucky enough to have one of our first lion dance shows in the neighborhood this past week, and in attendance was one of the senior instructors from Fu Jow Pai Tiger Claw Kung Fu, Sifu John Chang, one of my close Kung Fu brothers. It’s always wonderful to run into him, and he made me so happy by saying, “Your teachers, Sifu Tony Lau and Sifu Tak Wah Eng, taught you well, and you’re able to bring your team forward and do the traditional style of lion dance.” As I reflect, I think it’s important for us to be the custodians of the art form and the traditions and culture that have been passed down to us by our mentors and our teachers. As much as celebrating Chinese New Year is about looking forward to the new year and the happiness and joy that we will derive, I also think back and hope that we can do our best to carry forward the traditional values that were taught and passed down to us, and pass them down to the next generation. 

-Sifu Paul Koh 高寶羅