For centuries, lion dancers have appeared wherever the Lunar Year is celebrated around the world. In Manhattan’s Chinatown, which has struggled to revitalize its identity and economic health in the years after 9/11, how are these groups connected with this urban ethnic enclave’s economic and cultural transformation?
These and other questions are what I’m trying to answer in my graduate research in sociology. A lot of writing on Chinatown in this discipline has focused on globalization, gentrification, and the political economy of this ethnic enclave. But I’m interested in how culture is manifest in urban space, and I’m a video person, so during the Lunar New Year celebrations this year and last, I followed the lion dance groups as they cavorted and drummed through the streets of Chinatown, shooting footage and asking questions.
The recent recession has affected the 18 lion dance groups given NYPD parade permits this year in Chinatown. As a cost-cutting measure by the city, parades have been reduced by an hour in duration and 25% in the space they cover, since April 2010. Last year the lions ventured all the way over to East Broadway, but this year their routes seemed to stop at Bowery.
The hour reduction put a lot of pressure on the groups, who each follow their own path set by the NYPD. By prior formal agreement, they dance for businesses along their path to bring them prosperity in the coming year, and the merchants hand them the red envelopes which are a major source of support.
I noticed a lot of small lion paraphernalia for sale. There’s a lot said about the effect of commercialism and tourism in Chinatown. But from what I’ve learned so far, lion dance groups are where a lot of intergenerational and even inter-cultural dynamics are unfolding. The lion dance group Chinatown Community Young Lions was formed as a way to mentor Chinatown youth away from gang culture, and now incorporates youth from other ethnic groups as well.
My theory is that these groups are vital communities that culturally reconstitute Chinatown in urban space. From now until summer I’ll be interviewing more lion dancers past and present, and observing their training, trying to deepen my understanding of this lion’s journey through the streets New York Chinese call home.