The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

Chinatown Lion Dance

with 2 comments

ret_g10_img_0032_city.jpg by you.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

An admission- Chinatown scares the hell out of me. Its not an anti chinese thing, its the crowds and urban density. Naturally timid, emotionally stiff, and physically cowardish- the close contact and intimate quarters of these older parts of New York City amplify my natural inclinations and compel flight from such circumstances for want of those open skies and long urban horizons found across the river in the Newtown Pentacle.

Forced by obligation, however, to conquer my timorous nature and attend a meeting of Manhattan Bridge Parade Marshals (I’ll talk about that in a later post) in Chinatown- I came across this Lion Dance on Elizabeth Street.

from chinatown-online

New York City’s Chinatown, the largest Chinatown in the United States—and the site of the largest concentration of Chinese in the western hemisphere—is located on the lower east side of Manhattan. Its two square miles are loosely bounded by Kenmore and Delancey streets on the north, East and Worth streets on the south, Allen street on the east, and Broadway on the west. With a population estimated between 70,000 and 150,000, Chinatown is the favored destination point for Chinese immigrants, though in recent years the neighborhood has also become home to Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Burmese, Vietnamese, and Filipinos among others.
Chinatown is born
Chinese traders and sailors began trickling into the United States in the mid eighteenth century; while this population was largely transient, small numbers stayed in New York and married. Beginning in the mid nineteenth century, Chinese arrived in significant numbers, lured to the Pacific coast of the United States by the stories of “Gold Mountain” — California — during the gold rush of the 1840s and 1850s and brought by labor brokers to build the Central Pacific Railroad. Most arrived expecting to spend a few years working, thus earning enough money to return to China, build a house and marry.
As the gold mines began yielding less and the railroad neared completion, the broad availability of cheap and willing Chinese labor in such industries as cigar-rolling and textiles became a source of tension for white laborers, who thought that the Chinese were coming to take their jobs and threaten their livelihoods. Mob violence and rampant discrimination in the west drove the Chinese east into larger cities, where job opportunities were more open and they could more easily blend into the already diverse population. By 1880, the burgeoning enclave in the Five Points slums on the south east side of New York was home to between 200 and 1,100 Chinese. A few members of a group of Chinese illegally smuggled into New Jersey in the late 1870s to work in a hand laundry soon made the move to New York, sparking an explosion of Chinese hand laundrie

New York City’s Chinatown, the largest Chinatown in the United States—and the site of the largest concentration of Chinese in the western hemisphere—is located on the lower east side of Manhattan. Its two square miles are loosely bounded by Kenmore and Delancey streets on the north, East and Worth streets on the south, Allen street on the east, and Broadway on the west. With a population estimated between 70,000 and 150,000, Chinatown is the favored destination point for Chinese immigrants, though in recent years the neighborhood has also become home to Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Burmese, Vietnamese, and Filipinos among others.

Chinese traders and sailors began trickling into the United States in the mid eighteenth century; while this population was largely transient, small numbers stayed in New York and married. Beginning in the mid nineteenth century, Chinese arrived in significant numbers, lured to the Pacific coast of the United States by the stories of “Gold Mountain” — California — during the gold rush of the 1840s and 1850s and brought by labor brokers to build the Central Pacific Railroad. Most arrived expecting to spend a few years working, thus earning enough money to return to China, build a house and marry.

As the gold mines began yielding less and the railroad neared completion, the broad availability of cheap and willing Chinese labor in such industries as cigar-rolling and textiles became a source of tension for white laborers, who thought that the Chinese were coming to take their jobs and threaten their livelihoods. Mob violence and rampant discrimination in the west drove the Chinese east into larger cities, where job opportunities were more open and they could more easily blend into the already diverse population. By 1880, the burgeoning enclave in the Five Points slums on the south east side of New York was home to between 200 and 1,100 Chinese. A few members of a group of Chinese illegally smuggled into New Jersey in the late 1870s to work in a hand laundry soon made the move to New York, sparking an explosion of Chinese hand laundries.

ret_g10_img_0042_city.jpg by you.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

One of my companions, whose origins are found in the oceanic far east, claimed that the lion dance was being performed by what would most probably be an “ethnic society”. I am fairly ignorant about these deeper facets of Chinese Society, and will accept many apocryphal stories as fact- but in this case the source is a trusted observer with a long history of rectitude.

from wikipedia

The traditional borders of Chinatown are:

Canal Street in the North (bordering Little Italy)
The Bowery in the East (bordering the Lower East Side)
Worth Street in the South
Baxter Street in the West

ret_g10_img_0043_city.jpg by you.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

A dense crowd congealed around me as I neared the scene, which set me off into one of my specious moods. Reeling from the unfamiliar melodies of the percussionists interspersed with the crowd, your humble narrator managed to gain a clear vantage. Confetti rained.

also from wikipedia

The housing stock of Chinatown is still mostly composed of cramped tenement buildings, some of which are over 100 years old. It is still common in such buildings to have bathrooms in the hallways, to be shared among multiple apartments. A federally subsidized housing project, named Confucius Plaza, was completed on the corner of Bowery and Division streets in 1976. This 44-story residential tower block gave much needed new housing stock to thousands of residents. The building also housed a new public grade school, P.S. 124 (or Yung Wing Elementary). Since new housing is normally non-existent in Chinatown, many apartments in the building were acquired by wealthy individuals through under-the-table dealings, even though the building was built as affordable housing.

ret_g10_img_0049_city.jpg by you.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

It is not an uncommon experience in New York City to stumble upon ancient rites being enacted beneath neon signs and satellite dishes. Back during the summer, I witnessed and photographed a parade that looked like a Roman mural come to life in the DUTBO neighborhood of Astoria.

another from wikipedia

Chinese lion dances can be broadly categorised into two styles, Northern (北獅) and Southern (南獅). Northern dance was used as entertainment for the imperial court. The northern lion is usually red, orange, and yellow (sometimes with green fur for the female lion), shaggy in appearance, with a golden head. The northern dance is acrobatic and is mainly performed as entertainment. Sometimes, they perform dangerous stunts.

Southern dance is more symbolic. It is usually performed as a ceremony to exorcise evil spirits and to summon luck and fortune. The southern lion exhibits a wide variety of colour and has a distinctive head with large eyes, a mirror on the forehead, and a single horn at center of the head.

The Lion dance is often confused with the Chinese Dragon Dance, which features a team of around ten or more dancers. The Lion Dance usually consists of two people.

ret_g10_img_0066_city.jpg by you.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

The Lion costumes represent a significant material investment, if the prices at this website are typical for the genre. There’s a video at youtube which kind of conveys the feeling of being in this sort of crowd, albeit the far larger commotion and anarchic mood of that film was captured during the raucous Chinese New Year celebrations.

ret_g10_img_0072_city.jpg by you.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

From my superficial research on the Lion Dance, discernment of a competitive sort of sport has emerged, some kind of a gymnastic exhibition with elaborate scoring based on presentation and performance. For instance, were one to have found oneself in Guangzhou on February 9th, a plethora of Lion Dancers converged on the Guangzhou Lion Dance Contest and Gala for Lantern festival.

from chinatownology.com, which has a pretty cool page with video

During a lion dance performance, 2 performers co operate to “become” a lion. The Lion’s body consists of a lion head with movable ears, eye lids and mouth and a highly decorated body. The performers wear a t-shirt with the lion dance association’s logo and a special pair of pants designed to look like lion’s feet and in matching color and design with the lion’s body.

One of the performers takes the front position and assumes the front body of the lion. He controls the lion’s eye lids, ears and the mouth while his legs moves represent the front legs of a lion. The second performer arches forward to form the back of the lion, controls its tail and his legs represents the hind legs of the lion.

Lion dance performances are often accompanied by drum and gong players so that whenever there is a lion dance performances, the drum and gongs help to “inform” everyone around the area drawing crowds. The lion dance can occur with one or a group of lions and sometimes together with a Dragon Dance.

At the end of each performance, the Lion may leave a display of orange petals for audience to decipher the lucky numbers from the formation. Pastries such as prosperity cakes 发糕 are also used as props because of its auspicious symbolism.


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Written by Mitch Waxman

October 16, 2009 at 11:49 am

Posted in Manhattan

Tagged with , , ,

2 Responses

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  1. [...] had other, mundane reasons for being in Chinatown that day, but my search for Gilman had led me to Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral in search of [...]

  2. You ought to be a part of a contest for one of the greatest sites on the net. I most certainly will recommend this website!

    lion dance toronto

    July 17, 2012 at 8:17 am


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