New Year Memoriesby Falcon Lee
Growing up in San Francisco in the 1950s, on rare occasions, parents would let kids entertain themselves outside the house. And, on a Chinese New Year weekend, my older brother and a couple of cousins would walk to Chinatown. We would listen for sounds of drums and cymbals. We would walk toward that sound and as we got closer would hear firecrackers going off. Once visible, we would join the crowd with anticipation. We would follow the procession of lion dancing up and down the hilly streets and through alleyways of the community. We would carry this excitement throughout the two days of the weekend.
An open bed truck would have the drums and equipment needed for the troupe to make the lions come to life. Colorful silk flags with the troupe’s name would flutter from poles on the truck. In front of each store, the proprietors — older men, dressed up in Western suits with a red ribbon in the button hole — gave the directions to the troupe. The lion dancers could see lettuce or tangerines hanging over the entrance to the door of a business. The words for lettuce, “sang choi” sounds like “increasing wealth; tangerines represent luck. A red envelope would be handed by the business manager to one of the troupe leaders (holding a canvas bank bag), the business hoping for a blessing by the lions. The troupe member who receives the red envelope would discreetly determine the dollar amount given.
A modest donation would mean a modest dance would be given. The lions would dance up to the entrance and bow its head three times for good luck. At that time, firecrackers would be set off. It was an explosion of sound with red firecracker paper, which gives good luck, scattering everywhere. It is believed that the smoke would purify the air and the noise would scare away bad things.
A generous donation would generate a more elaborate dance. Aware of the generous donation, lion dance staff would create a square space with the boundary close to the size of a street intersection. It began with two lions having a nap lying down facing the door of the donor. For each, one dancer steers the lion head and another the lower back. Short nap later, they would begin to stretch their legs and blink the lion’s eyes as it wakes up. A little hungry, the two lions dance around the square looking for food. Both would find the food hanging from the door. They would spar. The winning lion would celebrate with a lively dance. Hungry, it would carefully approach the food and grab it off the string. We would watch the dancer skillfully pull the items into the lion’s mouth. The delighted lion would flap its ears and its mouth. When ready to eat, it would “wash” the lettuce clean and then tear the leaves. It would peel the tangerine. Then with a vigorous toss of its head, the lion would scatter the unwanted parts into the crowd. Everyone cheered and clapped.
The lion would then rouse the other one and both would then approach the door to thank the people for the food. The lions bow and take steps in reverse with head down and body low, and then stand tall to approach the entrance again. The lions do this respectfully three times, following the drum and cymbal sequence. Then the string(s) of 10,000 firecrackers hanging over the doorway would be set off to encourage the lions to continue dancing while the drum and cymbals would intensify in loudness and rhythmic patterns. The crowd instinctively moved back with the explosion of firecrackers while children squealed in delight.
Then off to another store, another dance. The troupe’s dancers would take turns, as operating the head especially required considerable athletic strength. The dancer handling the “tail” had to bend forward the entire time. And on Sunday afternoon, the last dance would be performed outside the Chinese Hospital, located at 835 Jackson Street. This central institution has served the community since 1925. No firecrackers, but a major dance. This was to bless the hospital and staff. All monies raised were used to offset the financial needy receiving care and treatment at this hospital. And nearly all the Chinatown children over several decades were born in this hospital!