Open City: Blogging Urban Change
Follow the Lions
By Konrad Aderer


Chinese Masonic Athletic Association

Chinese Masonic Athletic Association, Lunar New Year 2011

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?

video: Chinese Masonic Athletic Association has a sense of showmanship and fun in a tight crowd

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.

video: the Wan Chi Ming lion dancers’ exquisite moves make the lion seem like a living, thinking creature.

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.

Wan Chi Ming lion dancers

Wan Chi Ming lion dancers

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.

video: Chinatown Community Young Lions command an entire street with their fierce drumming.

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.

miniature lions

Miniature lions for sale, Mott Street below Canal, 2/12/11

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About Open City
Open City: Blogging Urban Change is an interdisciplinary neighborhood blog and community project coordinated by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Five commissioned writers, called Organizing Fellows, are working with community organizations and neighborhood folks in Manhattan’s Chinatown/Lower East Side (LES), Flushing, Queens, and Sunset Park, Brooklyn to collect oral histories and interviews, offer commentary about gentrification, neighborhood change, and produce new creative work around these themes. Read more.
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CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities was formed in 1986 (formerly known as the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence) as a response to an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes both in New York City and around the country (which included violence by police officers against Asians).
They have two offices – one in Manhattan’s Chinatown (which houses the Chinatown Tenants Union, and the new Asian Youth in Action organizing project) and the Youth Leadership Project office in the Bronx – and have members from all over the city. Over the years, CAAAV’s main campaigns have focused on community-based organizing work rooted in Asian immigrant and refugee communities. Although their advocacy and organizing work is focused mainly in Manhattan’s Chinatown and the northwest Bronx, CAAAV’s work also touches upon larger issues (such as affordable housing, war, and immigration) shaping communities all over the world: “Our work is primarily centered around issues facing New Yorkers, but always with a global analysis.”
CAAAV’s mission is to organize and build the power of working-class Asian immigrants, refugees, and youth to change concrete conditions and participate in a broader social justice movement. In the past, CAAAV’s work included organizing South Asian taxi drivers, Korean women workers, and Filipina domestic workers. Several of these organizing projects have gone on to become their own organizations, such as the New York Taxi Workers Alliance and Domestic Workers United. CAAAV’s current work focus on three different program areas: Read more.

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