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Chinatown Decoded: What's Going on Under That Lion Head?

The lion dance, decoded.


Editor's Note: This is one of many stories about the Chinese-American city that San Francisco is publishing over the next month, all part of the April 2015 Chinese Issue. To peruse the rest of the issue's contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.  

Lion dancing takes a certain level of finesse. “The physical demands are risky and, some would say, dangerous,” admits Corey Chan, director of Kei Lun Martial Arts, a group that carries on the tradition, which is used to celebrate the New Year, weddings, funerals, business meetings, store openings, birthdays, exorcisms—the works.

Lion dancers must be proficient jumpers and acrobats with exceptional balance and superb coordination. To test aspiring dancers, Chan challenges them to tell a story in movement while navigating a maze in his studio—but he’s looking for more than just dexterity: He needs charisma. “They must have attitude. ‘I’m an animal. I’m part of this creature.’”

They also need to watch their lion manners: Lifting a leg, biting another lion’s tail, or even blinking in front of another lion may be interpreted as a sign of disrespect. “In the old days,” Chan says, “if a rival group tried to muscle in on somebody’s territory or their lion had bad manners, there could be a gigantic fight.

Chinatown Decoded:
What Language Is Everyone Speaking?
Is That Volleyball?
Why Do Some Buildings Fly the Mainland’s Flag While Others Fly Taiwan’s?
Why Is Everyone Pushing Me?
Why Is That Art Gallery Under a Dry Cleaner's?
How Can You Tell If an Erhu Player Is Any Good?
Is the 30 Really the Worst Bus in Town?
How Could This Possibly Be Legal?
What's Going on Under That Lion Head?
What Are You Doing to My Body?
Is the Architecture East or West?
Are Those DVDs Bootlegs?
What Happens During a Chinatown Funeral?


Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco

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