Sunday, February 22, 2015

Chinese Lunar New Year 2015



For a resident of the northeastern region of the United States of America, Chinese Lunar New Year comes at a particularly dire time of year. Exactly the time that I need some fire and movement. It's exactly the time winter begins to loosen its grip, the sun rises higher in the sky, and there is the potential for something new to happen. It's quite unlike January 1. 

Every January 1 New Years, I consider going to Philadelphia to see the Mummers. Every year, even the January 1 Jared and I lived in Philadelphia, I have skipped the mummers. Lots of color and movement, but I wonder about the fire. Firemen in costume, maybe. Maybe one or two, but not the fiery good luck red of Chinese New Year.

Before we left the house, the three of us sat in the living room around the wood stove. Jared said he would begin to pack our bags for the day. Knowing Beren best responds to ideas introduced over time, I asked Jared to stay a moment because I had questions for him. I asked Jared, possibly I a somewhat forced voice,  "What are some things that you like about Chinese New Year? The firecrackers? The lion dance? The music?" After each of my inquiries, Beren announced, "No." 

Jared laughed, "I don't think this is working so well." "No, I think my play is closing the same day it opened," I said. "A total flop." Somehow we made it not only to the car with no complaint, but also the entire hour and a half drive.

As it was last February, this New Year was magical. The distress of our house search had been blasted away on a firecracker in 2014. And so when we returned to Philadelphia this year, we were quite a changed family. We have our own house and farm. We're healthy and thankful.

We watched a dozen or more lion dances in front of a string of Chinatown businesses - bakeries, hair salons, restaurants, a wholesale cigarette shop. Though Beren said, "I like the noise," we put a pair of hearing protectors over his ears, and jammed ear plugs in our own. This is my child who usually dislikes noise. 

Drums and cymbals crashed. Lions danced and Lions ate and tossed lettuce and cabbages in exchange for good luck largesse sealed in red and gold envelopes. 


In Philadelphia, the feeling is controlled chaos. No metal barricades like in New York. Instead police sit in patrol cars blocking the streets. Likely there are plain clothes officers, but their presence is not felt. 

Lion dancers and musicians seem to rule the moment, guided by older fellows who shout occasionally and wave their hands. "This way, this way! Other side, other side!" One man smokes, he raises a hand that holds his cigarette and waves the dancers on. The entire crowd, participants and spectators lurches forward.

Last year, we missed most of the martial arts demonstration. We saw just a half of a master's form. This time, we saw a man walking through the crowd carrying a guandao. "Let's follow him," Jared said.  We eventually lost him in the crowd, but later saw him and his students posing for photos under the arch at the entrance to Chinatown. 

We ducked into a bakery to get a quick lunch of pork buns and watched them from the window. They wore their uniforms and snow boots. The pavement was wet, and we wondered if they'd perform at all. Lion dancers came closer to the bakery, and an employee moved a ladder holder a stick with firecrackers and lettuce out onto the sidewalk.

We stepped back out onto the street and watched more. Just as we were about to leave the area and get lunch, and circle formed around the martial artists. Hung ga, mantis, tiger, monkey. Open hand, weapons forms - bo, double broad sword, and the final form of the day - guandao. 

I'd never seen a guandao form in person. It's a heavy weapon - a large, wide blade sits atop a six foot staff. Created for unmounted combatants fighting cavalry, it is a brutal and slow.

The master began his form. Upon his open palm, the guandao spun slowly. The remarkable, but sometimes not so showy things that Kung fu master can achieve is inspiring. The technique, control, and practice. The cultivation of chi.

The crowd clapped and I somewhat reluctantly agreed that we should leave the crowds for lunch. It was already mid afternoon.

We order the barbecue platter at Vietnam restaurant. A few rice wraps in, a waiter came to our table, and said, "The lions are coming." He pointed out the window, and we saw the ladder draped with firecrackers. "Ah yes, thank you so much," I said in the manner I heard my first Kung fu teacher utter hundreds of times. 

Beren and I went to the window to watch. The ladder held more firecrackers than I'd seen yet. We waited. In front of the restaurant was a shiny black BMW. I wondered how dusty it would get. The dancers arrived, followed by drums and crashing cymbals. 

I heard Jared whistle. He pointed to the door. Two lion dancers filled the room. Really, I should say four because each lion requires two people - one who holds the head and opens the mouth and makes the eyes blink and another person who bends over at the waist to hold up the rump. Beren's smile covered his face. The musicians jostled into the entry way. The dancers worked their way through the room, until they retreated back outside.


Men lit the firecrackers with fat incense sticks. White then dark grey smoke filled the air, obscuring our view outside. Acrid fumes seeped in. Beren was stoic. I, too, though enjoying this treat immensely, thought that this might be a little like what living in a war zone might be like. The smoke quickly cleared, lions ate the lettuce, and collected their red envelope.

We finished our lunch and explored Chinatown until the sun waned. Our souvenir for the date were three sets of chopsticks from a Chinese department store that seemed to be going out of business. I wondered if that might be bad luck, but decided probably not. 

Back on the street, we swung Beren over cast bronze signs of the zodiac embedded into the sidewalk and headed back to our car. The drove home and quietly talked over the day. 

At home, I made our quick meal of choice - miso soup with seaweed, rice noodles, and whatever vegetables we might have. Jared and Beren built Chinatown out of blocks. After dinner, we pulled out our drums and pot lids. We made a lot of noise, tossed ribbons like firecrackers, gobbled and threw green towels like lettuce, and stomped. 

Happy new year!



All photos by Jared.


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