By Konrad Aderer
Masters Research Essay
Department of Sociology, Brooklyn College
Advisor: Prof. Timothy Shortell
The Lunar New Year festivities in Manhattan’s Chinatown are among New York City’s best-known ethnic tourist attractions, drawing thousands of spectators who come primarily to see the lion dance performances. Each year, more than 20 lion dance groups perform for hours at a time, bringing to life huge, colorful creatures thrashing through the streets to clamorous drums and cymbals. Who are these groups, and why are they there? Are they an authentic manifestation of Chinese culture, a programmed ethnic spectacle for the benefit of tourists, or something else entirely?
For centuries, lion dancers have appeared wherever the Lunar Year is celebrated around the world. In a Chinatown that 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?
Adopting an urban culturalist approach, this research focuses on the intersection of culture, place and community that unfolds in this festival. Video and digital photography yield data on its spatial and experiential aspects, which I analyze using the Situationist International’s vision of unitary urbanism as a starting point. Through interviews and participant observation I synthesize these findings with an ethnography of the Chinatown lion dance groups to show how this familiar but little-understood spectacle arises from urgent community needs and narratives.
Introduction and Purpose of Research
During my graduate coursework, I began using ethnographic methods to investigate what the social and spatial “borders” of Chinatown were. First “touching down” in the neighborhood to explore and observe the visual features and activities taking place, and then interviewing a few people about their connection with Chinatown, by chance I met one of my subjects when he was with a friend watching video of New Year lion dance performances during the 1980s. I began to believe that this festival I had long been vaguely aware of may be connected in intricate ways with the history of Chinatown, its social structures, and the changing ways its stakeholders identify with this community-place.
New York City’s Chinatown, where 150,000 residents occupy a two-mile-square area of lower Manhattan, is home to the densest population of Chinese people in the Western Hemisphere. First settled in the late 1800s, the significance of this enclave encompasses the concerns of Chinese people, Asian Americans, and extends further still to New Yorkers in general. Community representatives and city planners have come to recognize ethnic enclaves as key contributors to the economic health of immigration gateway cities around the world. The culture of Chinatown has itself become a recognized commodity.
Since the 1980s, Chinatown has been evolving into an increasingly economic rather than residential center, dispersed by the growth of “satellite Chinatowns” in Queens and Brooklyn. About half of the ethnic economy’s garment manufacturing is now based in Sunset Park, Brooklyn’s Chinatown. Still, the territory of Manhattan’s Chinatown persists as a social reality whose definition and defense is the focus of the 1.5- and second-generation leaders of nonprofits such as Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE), Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV) and Museum of Chinese in the Americas (MOCA).
The concerns of these community organizations center around the management of perceptions of Chinatown on its own terms. Stakeholders place their hopes for a true revitalization of Chinatown largely in promoting tourism but also in focusing “collective sentiment,” “cultural solidarity” and “place attachment” in the larger Asian American community (Lin 2006).
The retention of the cultural ownership of Chinatown is a dynamic process that involves not only protecting residence and business ownership but the cultural appropriation of space. I have chosen to study Chinatown lion dance groups because they use traditional, transplantable practices to utilize and define a particular locality. Unlike cultural products such as dance, musical performance or spoken word, which are the province of more individual forms of expression by specialized artists, the lion dance is a collective practice rooted in traditions and social networks extending back to China. If there is a reciprocal bond between place and culture, then the Lunar New Year lion dances can be said to culturally reconstitute Chinatown in urban space.
The exact historical origins of the lion dance are somewhat murky, whether one consults academic literature or the lion dance groups themselves. According to anthropologist Kim Han-gu, they are related to Buddhism, and at the beginning lie outside of China along with the character of the lion itself, not native to China (1975). But according to Chinatown practitioners, the art of lion dance was introduced through the lineage of kung fu schools, and the differently colored lion characters represent principal characters from the Romance of The Three Kingdoms, a historical novel written in the 14th century. The major ingredients of the rites are music, kung fu-based dance movements, setting off firecrackers, and offering “lucky money,” green vegetables, and a basin of fresh water to the lions. Lion dance troupes performed at New Year in the first U.S. Chinatowns in the 1800s (Takaki 1993: 217). In Chinatown this traditional Chinese dance form is incorporated in a multifaceted social practice that combines economic, symbolic, and concrete social goals.
The “urban ethnic spectacle” of Chinatown’s Lunar New Year is a massive domination of space and time by the lion dance performances, which occupy streets and enter businesses throughout virtually the entire recognized territory of the enclave. The impact of these cultural practices is not confined to this festival. The lion dance groups engage in performances and other activities throughout the year and have their own distinct histories and social goals. These include mentorship of youth, and the preservation of traditional cultural heritage for both Chinese and non-Chinese.
Conceptual Background and Literature
Manhattan’s Chinatown has been extensively studied as an ethnic urban enclave, but Chinese cultural forms as practiced there have not. Two main approaches to studying culture are suggested in the perspectives of the dominant schools of urban sociology: Urban culture was characterized in the Chicago School as social disorganization, owing to the school’s failure to penetrate the “otherness” of ethnic low-income communities. In the world cities or political economy school of urban sociology, culture is viewed in the Marxian understanding of an epiphenomenon to political and economic forces. The sociological research on Manhattan’s Chinatown in the past two decades has focused on community segregation, globalization and economic displacement. Culture has been defined as systems of producing commodities for the urban growth machine’s “symbolic economy,” a top-down conception of urban life as a façade controlled and presented by political elites to compete in a system of globalized cities (Zukin 1995, 1996).
The work of Jan Lin has examined Chinatown both as an enclave in the world cities perspective of sociology, and as a community of stakeholders and planners engaged in urgent “place-making” to revitalize Chinatown after 9/11. In his paper, “Place, Culture, and Economic Recovery in New York’s Chinatown after the 9/11 Disaster,” Lin examined efforts to use culture and place identity to drive the economic revitalization of Chinatown. The cultural marketing of Chinatown for consumption by tourists and outsiders, spearheaded by Chinese American organizations, raised issues of “ethnic authenticity and cultural ownership” (Lin 2006).
Local culture in the world cites or political economy approach to urban sociology is viewed as a spectacle in general, an alienating encounter of spatially and socioeconomically segregated groups. Tourism produces its own semiotics, where the street life of ethnic enclaves, or the natural activity of “third world people in first world locations,” becomes a product for cultural consumption. The spectacle is produced from the difference between what the tourist encounters in the enclave and what she experiences at home. The totality of what she experiences as a spectator is itemized, taken out of context and packaged into products of cultural consumption. The Irish pub becomes a “typical Irish pub” (Hannerz 1996).
Guy Debord (1967) formulated the “spectacle” as the totality of experience presented as reality by modern capitalism. Though it is most easily identified in the images proffered through advertising and mass media, this spectacle does not consist in those images themselves but in the social relations mediated by them. It is the main production of capitalism, unfolding in time, through which the entire system justifies itself, engendering the false desires of consumerism through passivity and non-participation on the spectators.
It is not difficult to characterize Lunar New Year lion dance performances in this scheme of spectacle and commodification, as long as the experience of the participants is left out or invalidated. But if a tourist commodifies what he sees that does not determine the experience or intent of the performers. Simply put, the fact that a tourist or urban planner sees a spectacle does not mean that it is a spectacle. To treat this kind of reflexive semiotics as social reality commits an error of a kind Michael Ian Borer attributes to the L.A. school, as will be explained below.
Not all theorists who engage Marxian concepts in urban sociology have ignored culture as a medium of social action by non-elites. Henri Lefebvre (1974) noted that working-class ethnic communities must exercise a constant appropriation of urban space. Since medieval times, ritualized gestures have been a means by which bodies generate space, and these can be classified as gestures of “spiritual” and “material” exchange. Urban space couches its spiritual aspects within the rational levels of the state and bureaucracy. Space thus needs to be understood in terms of architectonics: layers of embedded history and symbols.
Debord and his colleagues in the Situationist International (SI) articulated a critique of urban space they said was embodied in the built environment as well as behavior. Like Orwell’s Newspeak, which through a rational reduction of language sought to make even a thought against the state impossible, the spectacle completed the delimitation of life to a closed circuit of production and consumption. The rationalist grid of right-angled streets channeled the very locomotion of urban dwellers into instrumental, repetitive paths while their time off from work was colonized by consumerist forms and locales of leisure. The lived experience of the city through walking and encounter were further subsumed by automobile culture.
If consciousness could be dulled and controlled through the urban environment, then this milieu could likewise be transformed to invoke feelings and behavior that would liberate consciousness. The SI cultivated “unities of ambience,” ineffable elevations in the quality of the mutual interaction between place and behavior, as exemplars of urban space that allowed affective autonomy from the spectacle. The Situationists were so called because of their central idea for creating a space outside the spectacle: “the construction of situations…the concrete construction of momentary ambiences of life and their transformation into a superior passional quality” (Debord 1957). Since art movements had failed to bring about revolutionary action due to the division of labor between artist and audience, “constructed situations” would aim at decreasing audience passivity in favor of active participation.
Psychogeography, “the study of the laws and precise effects of a consciously or unconsciously elaborated geographical environment acting directly on affective behavior,” was a kind of anti-rational empiricist study of ambiences. Though the SI’s conception of psychogeography was left open to methodological refinement, the principal research method articulated by the SI was the dérive, also known as the “drift,” an explorative walk through the urban environment that held planning and spontaneity in careful balance. Ambiences were to be the focus and primary data of the dérive, but interaction and play were important directives as well.
Attempts by the SI to collect and write up psychogeographical data did not yield useful results, which they themselves seem to acknowledge (Sadler 1999: 78-79; Khatib 1958). However, I have found their freedom from Cartesian logic and the rationalist grid in favor of experiential ways of mapping the city particularly illuminating in the study of New York’s Chinatown. The SI championed “unitary urbanism,” bringing together the built environment, its inhabitants and their activities, as a milieu through which various actors shape urban life according to their purposes. Urban sociologists have recognized that markers of ethnic identity in urban space can be important components of social agency (Krase and Shortell 2007). In recent visual sociology incorporating the semiotics of urban space, immigrant neighborhoods become “ethnic theme park” when the immigrants have left and an ethnic façade promoting tourism remains. These spaces are often the staging ground for “ethnic spectacles.”
However, urban ethnic festivals should not be understood as universally empty of agency or authentic cultural expression, even if there are tourists present. Kevin Fox Gotham (2005) extensively researched ethnic festivals in New Orleans to develop a critical theory of urban spectacles that includes the agency of community actors. Gotham concludes that these kinds of urban spectacles, which intentionally attract a large tourist audience, simultaneously disempower ethnic communities and create modes of resistance. For some of these performing groups, resistance took the form of détournement, taking recognizable images used in the capitalist exploitation of their culture and subversively repurposing them as satire or protest.
But what of other ethnic festivals, like Lunar New Year, that do not display this kind of visual innovation? In “An Anthropological Perspective on the Lion Dance,” Kim Han-gu (1975) integrates an explication of the historical origins of the elements of the lion dance with reportage of performances he has witnessed in the Toronto Chinatown. He concludes that the participants are driven by nativism, the need to revive or perpetuate aspects of their own culture in opposition to acculturation. However, my own experience with Chinatown residents and stakeholders made me suspect Han-gu’s work reduced a complex phenomenon to fit a pre-formed concept, rooted in the then-dominant theory of assimilation which has since been criticized as being skewed to the viewpoint of a self-anointed “receiver” nation. At the very least his conclusion may have been truer in 1975 Toronto than in New York Chinatown today.
The Chinese ethnic enclave offers the discipline of urban sociology an opportunity to study culture as practiced by a particular community in a particular place. It is surprising how extensively New York’s Chinatown has been studied in sociology without addressing specific Chinese cultural forms and practices. Though the concept of “culture” is used by Lin and the community leaders he interviews, it is not engaged as a concept or particular social practices and symbols. Instead Lin refers to “culture” in a generalized sense, conjoined with the “arts,” which are seen as a hope for defining Chinatown if a major performance center can be built.
Michael Ian Borer (2006) has remarked that culture is an elusive concept in sociology, owing to its “odd analytical separation” of culture from place. He proposed an urban culturalist school of sociology, “aimed at exploring the lived culture of cities and not merely their economic or political ‘structures’ and demographic profiles.” Similarly, the people of the city get lost in the L.A. school’s postmodernist use of discursive metaphors and abstraction about the city as a substitute for up-close ethnographic research. By starting from place and moving outward, directly attending to culture as comprised of practices and “meaning-making,” sociologists can avoid the traps of reducing culture to social disorganization, political-economic conflict, or consumerism.
Research Topics and Hypotheses
Culture consists of shared meaning systems, and urban culture attaches symbolic meanings to places. Urban culturalists explicitly investigate the symbolic relationship between people and places and the ways that persons invest places with meaning and value in order to make sense of their world. (Borer 8)
In studying the practice of the lion dance as connected with Chinatown, I am adopting the urban culturalist perspective, which comprises six distinct and related areas of research: (1) Images and representations of the city; (2) Urban community and civic culture; (3) Place-based myths, narratives & collective memories; (4) Sentiment and meaning of and for places; (5) Urban identities and lifestyles; (6) Interaction places and practices. Lion dance groups potentially encompass all of these research areas. This paper mainly focuses on research areas (3) and (6).
Participants share social bonds through narratives of recent Chinatown history and about the origins of the lion dance form. In a “town hall” held in the summer of 2011 at the Museum of Chinese in America I encountered many of the same community narratives and concerns that Lin did in 2006. Shared epochal understandings of the community’s past still unfailingly invoke the persisting aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the days gangs controlled Chinatown’s streets. These narratives tend to point to struggle and the need for solidarity.
The Lunar New Year performances are a highly compressed unfolding of interaction places and practices: negotiations, exchanges and encounters among members of a given group, between different groups, merchants, the NYPD, and not least of all the various people in the streets who may be engaged in the spectacle or trying to avoid it. Merchants play an important role; the interactions with the groups are not based solely on entertaining prospective customers but providing a religious service. The lion enters the space of the business, often disrupting the economic activity there, and makes specific movements in front of the business’ altar.
My main research questions will be: 1. How do mythology and narratives specific to Chinatown inform and motivate participation in lion dance groups?, and 2. If the lion dance is a living cultural form (and not merely an “ethnic theme park” spectacle), how is it a part of Chinatown’s current struggle for survival as a community-place? The research will focus on the groups’ distinct histories and goals as well as the participants’ shared and individual narratives. Narratives of persecution and struggle based both in the archaic past and in the present may function as “symbolic repertoires:” portrayals a group tells of itself to itself (Lee 323). Tensions can emerge between different interpretations of narratives that connect with epochs of Chinatown history.
My hypothesis is that the Chinatown lion dance is a multifaceted practice that does not solely embody traditionalism as a bulwark against assimilation, but rather a fluid cultural form rooted both in the present and in a localized form of narrative history. This practice plays an important role in the preservation and reconstitution of Chinatown as a place for its inhabitants and stakeholders. Despite the appropriation of the lion dance as an icon in corporate marketing campaigns and its function as a tourist attraction, the social reproduction of lion dance groups cannot be accounted for by economic motives alone, nor is it a form of resistance to government or corporate incursions upon local Chinese cultural space in the understanding presented by Gotham. The lion dance groups are separately distinct and diverse in their composition, origins and their reasons for persisting, yet these reasons are linked to the narratives that carry the preservation of the idea of Chinatown as a place and community, and the urgency of this preservation.
If lion dance groups exist primarily for the sake of Manhattan’s “symbolic economy,” then they would have to be a programmed spectacle, a demonstration of culture rather than a manifestation of it. Ethnographic research would show the groups to be sponsored and sustained by business interests or city planners. The members of these groups would either be professional performers or volunteers motivated by the promotion of Chinatown as an “ethnic theme park.” Alternatively, participants could be engaged in a mode of resistance like those posited by Han-gu or Gotham. In analyzing the experiential and video data, this paper will also engage the Situationist International’s critique and research methods to study the festival’s effect on urban ambiences, addressing the question of whether and how the Chinatown lion dance reinforces the spectacle, or counteracts it like a constructed situation or dérive.
Research Strategies and Methods
My research on Chinatown originated from a concern with gentrification, which I chose to explore experientially, in a manner akin to the dérive, by “touching down” to explore one of the enclave’s borders. When I turned my focus to lion dance groups I started using qualitative methods, including interviews and participant observation, to bring the practices of the lion dance into the context of narratives and practices of the people involved in them.
Visual sociology has used digital photography to analyze urban vernacular landscapes (Krase and Shortell 2002). Since lion dance performances are intrinsically kinetic practices, and in Chinatown sound is a particularly distinctive and important medium for defining urban space, I decided video of the performances would be indispensible as a means of data collection. During the Lunar New Year celebrations in 2010 and 2011, I followed the lion dance groups and videotaped them as they cavorted and drummed through the streets of Chinatown. I also interviewed lion dancers past and present, and observed their training.
Writing about the “culture” of an urban ethnic enclave can involve a reductive and tellingly awkward process of formulation. There is the “community,” its “culture,” and “outsiders.” Since the focus of my inquiry relates to what defines Chinatown as a community and as a place, aspects of my first-person viewpoint are included to help elucidate the nuances of categories that are constantly being redefined. In this paper I document my finding of the topic and my use of snowball sampling through my personal network to recruit interview subjects.
Including the self in researching a community with which one’s identity overlaps addresses concerns of bias and opens vital avenues of exploring themes relating to ethnic identity which are all the more important in understanding a sense of self or identity that is in transition and transformation (Baca Zinn 1979, Karp 1996, Snyder 2009). The category of convenience my identity falls into is that of “Asian American.” Though I am not Chinese, as an American whose Japanese American maternal grandparents endured stigmatization and incarceration during World War II, my identity overlaps with that of Chinese Americans whose ancestors were excluded from citizenship and for whom the signal narrative is that of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American who was killed by angry whites who confused him with a Japanese. In short, while not a member of the Chinatown community, by virtue of the narratives that have shaped my identity I am not a complete outsider either.
Furthermore, my interaction with Chinatown as a researcher and in my personal life since I began this project have changed my relationship with this community-place, merging categories of ethnicity with shared narratives, and social networks. In comparable ways, the variations in subjects’ connections with Chinatown will show how the relationship of community with place needs to be problematized beyond the question of geographical residence. Chinatown is not just a physical location but a state of mind that actively negotiates community.
As I have reached out through my social network to find members of “Chinatown lion dance groups” I have often been put in touch with people who do not fit that strict definition, and I have had to question whether the boundary I created in my own mind is relevant. Certainly an easy definition can be drawn that would express my main object of focus, and that would be the list of lion dance groups that receive parade permits from the New York Police Department (NYPD) for the Lunar New Year festival. But imposing an institutional definition by simply requesting a list from the NYPD and sending out letters to the groups, which for bureaucratic reasons may not have even proved feasible, would more importantly have missed opportunities to truly understand how these groups are integrated with the larger community.
There is much at stake at this moment for Chinatown. In the discourse of nonprofits and other Chinatown actors the fate of the “ethnic theme park” whose resident culture has been hollowed out is not a current reality, but a fearful future prospect. The fact that the lion dance has not been directly addressed in the discipline of sociology as a contemporary urban cultural practice may owe to a trivialization of a cultural form that can be dismissed as a standardized “carnival mask” of commodified culture. By studying lion dance groups from the standpoint of how and why they utilize traditional forms and demonstrate their autonomy from the community organizations and larger forces which have been the focus of previous research, I intend to contribute to the understanding of culture as tied to a place which is both the milieu and the stakes of social action.
|Figure 1. Composite map showing Chinatown borders and concentration of ethnic Chinese in Chinatown (Manhattan), with census tracts|
|Sources: Social Explorer, U.S. Census, 2000, Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV)|
Finding Place in Chinatown
New York City’s Chinatown (Figure 1) occupies a two-mile-square area of lower Manhattan, defined in a recent study as having borders along Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive, Pearl Street, Worth Street, Broadway and a northern border which runs along Spring and Delancey Streets (Lee 2009).
Chinatown’s busiest areas, particularly along Canal Street to the East River, can feel like an assault on all five senses: the smell of fish, sidewalks crammed with people trampling over murky puddles and sticky residue, crates of dried or glistening animal and vegetable foodstuffs laying open to the sun and air. For an English-speaker stepping into this world, surrounded by people speaking Mandarin and Cantonese, it can be an alien and uncomfortable place.
This image of Chinatown has often been prominent in my mind. But when I examine my actual experience of Chinatown in my three decades of living in New York City – my memories and the way my personal life intersects with Chinatown, not only the places in Chinatown but the identity of it, Chinatown becomes a vast, ever-changing place.
Despite having seen every neighborhood I have lived in undergo gentrification over the decades, I had always thought, “Chinatown will always be there.” Chinatown has been a feature of my own life since childhood. As an adult, my relationship with this area has grown along with my own consciousness as an Asian American. Though I am not Chinese, being half Japanese (my father’s ethnic background is Austrian-English) has stamped me for life as Asian American.
I trace my own assimilation into Asian American identity to my pursuit of an acting career in my early adult years. If I ever was inclined to forget I was part Asian, the casting directors and producers I dealt with in seeking work would remind me, since hiring actors is one of the few professional areas where racial perceptions can openly be used as factors. Having been in effect ghettoized into the Asian American arts community, I have found there is a bond shared among Asian Americans transcending specific nationality, which is one of the many facets of my personal relationship to Chinatown.
Chinatown’s significance extends beyond the concerns of Chinese people, Asian Americans, even New Yorkers. Community representatives and city planners have come to recognize ethnic enclaves as key contributors to the economic health of immigration gateway cities around the world. Chinatown is not only a tourist destination and economic engine, a mecca of cheap consumer goods, a locus of international capital and a vital source of real estate tax revenues. The culture of Chinatown has itself become a recognized commodity (Lin 1995, 1998).
As I was beginning my graduate coursework in 2008, news stories and reports published by Asian American community organizations emerged that documented extensive and rising rates of poverty among Asian populations in New York City, and the threat of gentrification displacing Chinatown residents and businesses. My first reaction to these reports was social concern and a pang of solidarity. I felt it was a sad irony that many Asian Americans, the industrious “model minority” (Lee 2004), were working more than full time and getting pushed out of their homes and businesses (CAAV 2008, AAFE 2008). However, I knew it would be a mistake to accept the findings of these community organizations uncritically as a complete picture of what was happening, since one could argue that these nonprofit organizations have a predisposition or even a vested interest in raising these concerns.
Prior work on Chinatown has examined conflicts in land-use planning between the “lower circuit,” immigrant labor and petty capitalism, and the “upper circuit” of Chinese investors in real estate and banking. One of the outcomes of this conflict was the emergence of “a new generation of local Chinatown activists” in the 80s and 90s, who have formed organizations providing social services and fighting for housing rights on behalf of the lower circuit (Lin 1995).
As globalization has led to urban decline in the world’s immigration gateway cities, the revitalization of ethnic enclaves has been treated as an engine of renewal, owing to their “cultural products” which have taken on the status of material commodities. Public arts projects, museums, festivals, and the creation of cultural districts, first promoted by community activists to fight displacement of ethnic communities, have subsequently been taken up by city planners as an investment in central-city economic growth (Lin 1998). But this kind of growth strategy raises the specter of gentrification as a long-term consequence. In Harlem, a city-led policy of entrepreneurial investment ultimately displaced lower-income African Americans, and in Williamsburg, an arts-oriented resurgence and ensuing gentrification occurred in the absence of government planning or support (Zukin 2009, Lin 2006).
Since the 9/11 disaster, which had a severe impact on the economic health of Chinatown, community groups have worked with city government to develop and enact strategies for promoting tourism and cultural development as engines for economic recovery. But this process also generated intense introspection in the Chinese American community about the meaning of locality and culture, and the question of just why this locality and its fate are so important, and to whom.
Jan Lin’s paper, Place, Culture, and Economic Recovery in New York’s Chinatown after the 9/11 Disaster (2006) is distinct from his previous work on Chinatown, which was more quantitative and economic in focus. In this paper, Lin interviews a “cluster sample of 13 stakeholders and community informants,” quoting them at length to reveal an emotionally rich set of reactions to the rebuilding of Chinatown post-9/11. The subjects themselves played significant roles in this effort, with projects including the Rebuild Chinatown Initiative, sponsored by Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE). Their concerns center around a redefinition of the perceptions of Chinatown on its own terms, at a time when globalization and the dispersal of Chinese immigrant residence and industry to satellite Chinatowns in Brooklyn and Queens calls into question the notion of Chinatown as a physical place. These stakeholders place their hopes for a true revitalization of Chinatown not in tourism but in focusing “collective sentiment,” “cultural solidarity” and “place attachment” in the larger Asian American community (Lin 2006).
Recognizing my own social location in this scheme, and how these feeling-concepts described my own reaction to news of poverty and gentrification hitting Chinatown, I decided to revisit and update these topics. Though Lin leaves out the researcher-self in his work on Chinatown, as I read his last paper the people, organizations and programs evoked a flood of associations from my own life and relationships. My wife once worked at Museum of Chinese in the Americas, one of the organizations featured in his study, and other people I have known or been close to are quoted. This made me realize for the first time that on a personal, professional and artistic level, my life history and the personal network I have developed over the decades overlaps in many respects with the place and idea of Chinatown.
Instead of attempting to replicate the methods of the studies I had read on poverty and gentrification, I decided to use the techniques of place description and informal interviews, and a narrative account of my own path as I used chance encounters and my personal social network to navigate Chinatown’s borders and investigate if and how they were being threatened. Though at the time I had not heard of the dérive, my initial approach would prove to have continuity with what I later learned about the Situationists and experiential modes of urban sociological research.
I began my journey by simply “touching down” in an area of Chinatown I had been walking through repeatedly for work-related activities. Grand Street and Lafayette is a location that struck me as a gateway between Chinatown and Soho, which extends to the west. There I found a French bistro called Grangette around the corner from a closed establishment called Kim Beauty Salon which was partly shuttered by steel grate, and its windows covered with brownish-pink paper. In that area, however, were still-open Chinese establishments relating to reflexology and acupuncture.
By chance in this intersection I ran into an acquaintance I had met in an Asian American filmmaker group almost ten years prior. Derek (subjects in this paper are identified by pseudonyms) is a Korean American who for me evokes an Asian Woody Allen. In catching up with him I learned he ran a photography studio, but I still remembered him for writing personal observational essays with devastating dry wit. When I told him what I was doing there, he pointed to where two Chinese-owned small businesses had been replaced by upscale non-Chinese establishments. He told me to contact his friend Robert, who had been involved in community work in Chinatown for ten years, a white guy who spoke Mandarin so well he would often provoke startled stares from Chinese people.
Sanh Hoa Long Acupuncture & Herbs is a clean, spacious space on the second floor of 217 Centre Street. As I walked in, the strongest sensory impression was a mostly unfamiliar spice smell I could only associate with ground red pepper. On one side of the space, behind a long counter was a vast cupboard-like array holding dozens of compartments labeled with the names of herbs in English and Chinese. Along the back wall were three dimly lit acupuncture rooms, each containing a colorful mattress and reflexology diagrams of the human body.
This space was a center of activity for both Robert and Derek – a form of Chinese internal martial arts was also taught here, which was Derek’s connection. Robert had told me on the phone that he spent much of his waking hours at San Hua Long, though I still wasn’t sure exactly what he did there. His phone persona had epitomized the stereotypical fast-talking New Yorker, and I had been curious about what he actually looked like. He had invited me to meet him and others in his network at a party at Sanh Hoa Long that was now slowly getting started.
From the start of my research I had sought to maintain an agnostic attitude towards the idea of gentrification as a force of displacement or oppression there. I had a copy of the report on gentrification, Converting Chinatown, in my hand, and I proffered it to a few people to get their reactions. One was Steve, a white man in his 50s, who had lived in or near the neighborhood for over twenty years. He questioned the validity of the report, saying that the territory of Chinatown had greatly expanded since the 1980s, pushing out much of Little Italy above Canal Street. I later found this view supported in Lin’s work (Lin 1995, 1998).
By nine p.m., the party that had seemed a little doubtful when I had arrived was fully underway, and the space was filling up with people, including ethnically diverse couples wearing black and clusters of young women dressed in body-revealing clothes evoking the excitement of springtime and Saturday night fun. The current or former martial arts students there included white men in their 40s or later with a vaguely post-hippie style about them, and a few young black men. I talked with some of these people about martial arts, sharing my own experiences with Korean and Japanese forms of training.
At this stage I had in effect “drifted” from the idea of the borders of Chinatown to the cultural theme of martial arts. In a single stroll I had found glancing evidence of a gentrifying physical border, but a chance encounter and ensuing interactions had showed me the diffuse permeability of any boundary that could be drawn around Chinatown in social space. The traditional Chinese cultural element of acupuncture and Chinese medicine I had encountered was one dispensed and enjoyed by a diverse set of people. Though a researcher could view the establishment that housed the party as part of the commodification of Chinese culture, my own experience had given me a sense of motivations beyond consumerist cosmopolitanism for learning Asian martial arts forms.
The Lion Rears Its Head
Martial arts was proving to be a thread running through my personal life and the culture and history of Chinatown, which I would see revealed in a deeper aspect in my next encounter. I called Jim Fong, a Chinese American who had been working for five years at a nonprofit providing afterschool programs and other social services in the Fukienese area, which centers on East Broadway. The red brick building occupies a comfortable-looking block on Henry Street, comprised of a row of modest brick buildings on one side and a public school on the other. Jim met me in the landing of the main office, now closed, one wall of which was lined with pockets of the kind of brightly colored construction paper children do arts and crafts with, containing pamphlets for member families to take.
As we bounded up the creaky stairs I noticed how the wooden interior of the building showed signs of age which had been muted by a recent coat of white paint. Our personal connection was his girlfriend Jessica, a film and theatre friend of my wife’s. He was sturdy-looking young man who looked to be in his twenties, with spiky Asian hair and glasses, wearing comfortable slacks and a button-down white-patterned shirt with short sleeves. Our conversation flowed easily, rolling with his youthful, gregarious energy.
We entered a narrow room with a slanting floor, mostly empty except for a bare-bones video editing suite. At the table was Wei, whose relaxed confidence and apparent youth made me a bit surprised to learn that he was a doctor who had been practicing in Chinatown for two years. Similarly to Jim’s, his hair was styled short at the sides in a way typical of young Asian men, and he was casually but neatly dressed in darker colors than Jim.
At the moment they were looking at footage of lion dancers performing on a commercial Chinatown street amidst a barrage of fireworks. I was told this footage had been shot in the 1990s, and was to be edited together with interviews and more recent footage for a piece on the history of the lion dance. Sitting with Wei and Jim as they explained the footage to me and commented on the action for their own purposes gave me a serendipitous look at the place of martial arts in the changing cultural dynamics of Chinatown.
Watching the dancers animate a large lion costume with articulated eyes and mouth, I was reminded of how to me the apparition had always looked like a dragon, since its brightly painted design looked more like scales than fur. The constant explosions and smoke produced by endless strings of exploding firecrackers, along with the long pikes and tridents carried by other participants, gave a transhistorical war-zone feeling to the event.
A lot of Jim and Wei’s comments expressed nostalgia over the elements of the nearly out-of-control event we were watching that no longer took place. The Giuliani administration outlawed firecrackers and the carrying of ceremonial weapons in 1993. Wei believed the quality of the dancing had precipitously declined over the generations, and from his reactions to different dancers it was clear he thought the older ones displayed much more art and vigorous precision.
The lion would seem to make a point of sticking its head inside the entrances of businesses and vigorously nodding up and down. Wei explained that the businesses would pay money to the martial arts schools to have them stop and perform this ritual in their storefronts. The lion dancers were members of different martial arts schools, which up to the 1980s were affiliated with Chinese gangs, and violence would sometimes break out when rival groups would pass on the street during the New Year festival. Having this information imparted to me while watching the performances made me wonder if the lion dance could be studied as a dynamic manifestation of the various cultural, power and economic relationships in a given moment of Chinatown’s history.
After Wei left I had the chance to learn more about Jim’s personal relationship to Chinatown. As a child in the 80s he had resented coming to Chinatown so often because he thought it was a dirty, unappealing place. When I asked him the basic question of how Chinatown had changed, his first reaction was to talk about what he saw as the filthy habits of some of the newer Chinese immigrants there, like hawking and spitting phlegm and having their small children urinate and defecate in public spaces. That was one thing he thought or wished had changed since his childhood, but he had recently begun seeing those kinds of sights again.
Jim began gradually acclimating himself to Chinatown during his high school and college years, finding, as his parents and grandparents had, that obtaining many of life’s necessary goods and services was easier and cheaper there, including haircuts, doctors and dentists, and groceries. Though he didn’t have a systematic view of local gentrification when I asked him, my question made him think of his own gripe with his workplace, that many of the Chinese-speaking people who worked in management and administrative positions had been gradually replaced by non-Chinese speakers, even though more than 99% of their clients were Chinese. Now he was often the only Chinese-speaking person on hand to respond to drop-ins and calls.
As we took the subway to Park Slope, Brooklyn, where we both happened to live, the already-casual relationship of researcher and subject I had established began to dissipate. I shared with him how my own reassimilation had common features with his. My wife’s family is Taiwanese, and her parents speak Mandarin and are in most respects culturally Chinese. She occasionally makes runs to Chinatown for Chinese groceries, and also recently referred me to her dermatologist, a Chinese American who serves a largely Chinese clientele on Canal Street.
Jim’s experiences and their echoes in my own highlighted how the relationships people from Chinese or Asian families have with Chinatown combine mundane practicality, personal ties, cultural affinity, and sometimes antipathy. In 2010 my wife and I moved to Sunset Park, for reasons of space and affordability, but also cultural familiarity, even though neither of us speaks Chinese. The comfort of living among people who look more or less like oneself has been borne out in the feeling I have walking around my neighborhood, and how I feel more guarded when I pass through the neighboring Hispanic enclave.
Chinatowns in the U.S.: Emergence and Dispersal
A Chinatown is a “ghetto” of Chinese persons, a community within a non-Chinese community, having no independent economic structure but attached symbiotically to the larger economic, political, and social base (Lee 1949).
Sharon Zukin has posited that the struggle between globalization’s elite and its underclass manifests in urban space as the landscape of power versus the urban vernacular. The landscape of power is represented in high-end shopping districts and soaring, gleaming skyscrapers, while the vernacular is expressed in low-lying residential areas outside the center where poorer immigrants reshape and repurpose existing structures in their own image (1991).
The first notable Chinese enclave in the U.S., San Francisco’s Chinatown, had formed by the 1850s. At that time the vernacular was recorded by a non-Chinese observer: “suspended over the doors were brilliantly-colored boards covered with Chinese writings, and with several yards of red ribbon streaming from them…” Soon these settlements populated by Chinese in native “costume” also appeared in rural Sacramento, Marysville and Stockton. By 1877 the Chinese quarter of San Francisco was six blocks long (Takaki 1993).
Why did Chinatowns form? Rose H. Lee cites three factors contrasting the Chinatown phenomenon with the Jewish diaspora. (1) The Chinese, barred from citizenship, were generally unable to own land on which to create a homestead. (2) Their cultural dissimilarity in effect created impermeable ghetto walls. (3) The “sojourner” outlook of the many Chinese who intended to make money and return to families back home necessitated a close, insular community. As the sex ratio began to equalize, Chinese began to disperse and Chinatowns disintegrated (1943:422).
The American perception of the Chinese has comprised a colorful array of stereotypes: exotic “celestials” with strange beliefs, shadowy underworld characters in noir films, the all-knowing detective Charlie Chan. The iconic kung-fu master pioneered by Bruce Lee has proven the most durable and lucrative. Chinese have more recently been seen as tong-controlled gang members in the major motion pictures Year of the Dragon and The Corruptor. Both films also featured a white American protagonist in a law enforcement role.
Tongs, clan-like organizations roughly analogous in both myth and reality to their more familiar Italian counterparts, the Mafia families, have been present in American Chinatowns virtually from their beginnings. In 1852 the first such secret society, Kwang-tek-tong, was founded in California (Takaki 1993). Originally underground antigovernment movements in China, Tongs long controlled street-level realities in urban Chinatowns, including the Chinese youth gangs.
New York City’s Chinatown(s): Change and Adaptation
The sense that Manhattan’s Chinatown is a neighborhood and community undergoing change, whose stakeholders are increasingly preoccupied with defining and maintaining its psychic and economic existence along with its physical boundaries, pervades all the discourse surrounding it, a discourse taking place from within and without which seems to have been intensifying in the last two decades.
|Figure 2. “Satellite Chinatown” in Flushing, Queens|
|Source: Social Explorer|
|Figure 3. “Satellite Chinatown” in Sunset Park, Brooklyn|
|Source: Social Explorer|
Chinatown has been evolving into an increasingly economic rather than residential center, dispersed by the growth of “satellite Chinatowns” in Queens and Brooklyn (Figures 2 and 3). About half of the ethnic economy’s garment manufacturing is now based in Sunset Park, Brooklyn’s main Chinatown. Still, the territory of Manhattan’s Chinatown persists as a social reality whose preservation and defense is the focus of the 1.5- and second-generation leaders of nonprofits such as Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE), Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAAV) and Museum of Chinese in the Americas (MOCA).
Sociological literature has theorized Chinatown as a locus of globalization in the urban environment. News periodicals of the last decade contribute to this theme. Articles in the New York Times and the Village Voice depict conflict between Chinese landlords and tenants, battles waged chiefly with zoning and safety regulations. The articles quote advocates from the aforementioned organizations AAFE and CAAAV, which provide legal representation to immigrants (Dwoskin 2009; Haughney 2008; Zhao 2002).
|Figure 4a. Lion vernacular in Sunset Park store window|
|Photo by Konrad Aderer, 2012|
The threat of gentrification has become a rallying cry for some of the community organizations committed to defending the social welfare and cultural self-determination of Chinese in New York City. As the available, affordable housing stock there has declined, Chinese immigrants have bypassed the area, and the resulting settlement patterns have been influenced by family relationships instead of being dominated by the enclave economy (Zhou 1991).
This dispersal of Chinatown into functionally differentiated nodes can be seen in its changing built environment. Flushing, which represents the upper circuit of international capital, expresses its aspirations to embody a landscape of power in its cosmopolitan shopping districts and a Sheraton hotel. The vernacular in Sunset Park expresses the lower circuit of residence and cheap necessities, though since I began living there in 2010 I have noticed the emergence of stores and restaurants that target a more cosmopolitan clientele.
|Figure 4b. Lion vernacular in front of Sheraton Grand Hotel, Flushing|
|Photo by Konrad Aderer, 2010.|
The lion dance, and the lion itself, is a symbol which can be studied through the lens of one of the urban culturalist research areas, images and representations of the city. Recognizing this symbol in its appropriated manifestations in the linked enclaves evokes a unified sense of culture-place, updating the psychogeography of the Situationist International (Figs. 4a and 4b). The most famous image to come from SI is that of their Guide Psychogeographique de Paris, a psychogeographic map consisting of a collage of map fragments linked by arrows (Figure 5). As an expression of psychogeographic linkages of space that transcend physical geography (Sadler 1999, 82), the SI map visualizes subjective affinities for city spaces as they are walked and lived.
One adaptation of the enclave economy seems to make the psychogeographic map real. The private van lines connecting the three main Chinatowns fill a need for Chinese immigrants to get back and forth to work safely, especially late at night (Figure 6). But in avoiding over-abstraction to consider an urban culturalist perspective, we find a central problem with the SI’s work: the social distance of SI psychogeographers from the concerns and everyday reality of the residents of the spaces they navigate. The result is a connoisseurship of the “ambiences” produced in aimless walking as the only authentic experience of the city.
|Figure 5. Map on cover of Debord’s Guide Psychogéographique de Paris|
|Source: Krygier, John. 2009. “Making Maps: DIY Cartography.” New York: Guilford Press. Retrieved April 4, 2012. (http://makingmaps.net/2009/06/22/making-psychogeography-maps/)|
|Figure 6. New York City Chinatown and satellites.|
|Graphic image by Konrad Aderer.|
The sociospatial relationships created by inter-Chinatown van lines offer a window into the resident communities’ own consciousness of urban space. As an adaptation they serve to make the rest of the city disappear, enhancing the efficiency of working, shopping and leisure. But like the enclave economy in general, there is a cost to this adaptation which is borne within the immigrant community: the van operators are overworked, struggling for survival in a business of low margins and cutthroat competition (Chao 2005).
Blocks away from the World Trade Center, Chinatown suffered a particularly severe and lasting aftermath following September 11, 2001. The complete police lockdown of lower Manhattan, the severe economic slump which immediately followed, and a heightened police presence and control of the area persisting for years afterwards, figure prominently in the concerns of Chinatown stakeholders to this day.
In the summer of 2007 the nonprofit Asian American Arts Alliance (A4) organized SoundFest, a concert of Asian American musical groups in Columbus Park, which lies on the particularly well-defined corner of Chinatown’s southwest border, nestled behind the municipal buildings which line Centre Street. I was hired to produce a video of this event, and when I interviewed A4 board president Rocky Chin he emphasized the intention of SoundFest to revitalize an area still suffering from 9/11. The concert was visibly a success, attracting an enthusiastic audience well into the hundreds. However, SoundFest was intended to be an annual event, but it has not recurred since (Figure 7).
|Figure 7. SoundFest concert, Columbus Park, Chinatown, 2006. [online video link]|
|Video by Asian American Arts Alliance/Konrad Aderer, 2006.|
Contemporary arts of the kind on display in SoundFest seem to have displaced traditional Chinese art forms in discourse on the dynamic self-perpetuation of Chinatown, which can be read from both a commercial and cultural standpoint. The commercial street to the east of Columbus Park was one of the areas I revisited in the course of following the lion dances of 2010. Though no one had claimed at SoundFest three years earlier that the concert was going to have a visible localized impact, the built environment across the street showed the tension between economic decline and the uneasy bargains of rezoning for the sake of commercial development (Figures 8a and 8b).
The individual, contemporary styles of expression displayed by most of the SoundFest artists fits the undefined but palpable definition of “culture” that seems to be shared
|Figure 8a. Mulberry Street, across street from Columbus Park, February 2010.|
|Photograph by Konrad Aderer, 2010.|
|Figure 8b. Mulberry Street.|
|Photograph by Konrad Aderer, 2010.|
among the Asian American advocates for Chinatown who spoke of building a performing arts center as a potential revitalization project in Lin’s 2008 article. In 2009, Museum of Chinese in the Americas moved out of the repurposed public school building on Mulberry Street that it shared with several Chinatown organizations, including two of the lion dance groups discussed in this paper.
The organization also made a small change in its name, to Museum of Chinese in America. MOCA is now the sole occupant of a two-level space designed by Maya Lin, on Centre Street above Canal. Though the facility does not have a large auditorium, it contains well-appointed rooms for symposia and film screenings, which I have occasionally participated in and videotaped for the museum.
As large-scale nonprofit revitalization initiatives continue to be proposed and implemented, the Lunar New Year festival remains the most prominent annual display of culture in Chinatown, and its most distinctive feature is the dozens of lion dance troupes who take over the whole area with their traditional sound and fury, drawing thousands of spectators.
When I stumbled onto the lion dance videos, I was intrigued by the idea of “ethnic spectacle” as an active element of the ethnic vernacular landscape that is at once a traditional Chinese practice, and as I soon discovered, also a ritual that unites the symbolic with the economic, apart from its being a tourist attraction. The lion dance takes on additional meanings as it is taught to and performed by members of other ethnic groups (Krase 2003).
Though I have not found a sociological account of urban Chinese lion dances, a comprehensive article on lion dancing in Manhattan’s Chinatown was published in The Drama Review in 1987 (Slovenz). Slovenz describes a subculture dominated by competing kung fu schools. All the groups and performers she follows are enmeshed in an interlocking network of benevolent and mutual aid societies, tongs, triads, and their affiliated youth gangs. The tension between competing schools necessitated constant attention to etiquette whenever lion dance groups encountered each other. Slovenz’s article portrays a Chinatown strikingly different from what I found two decades later, but it also illuminates and corroborates the Chinatown history conveyed by the participants I spoke with.
Impact on Urban Space
Video and images help us analyze the impact of the Lunar New Year performances on urban space. The Figure 9a video conveys some aspects of what a stroll into Chinatown on a pleasant February weekend is like and the auditory as well as visual transition from Little Italy to Chinatown. We can see the ethnic vernacular changing from Italian to Chinese, and hear how merchants employ sound produced by a traditional Chinese noisemaker, establishing who occupies the space.
Figure 9b shows the same intersection (Mott and Hester Streets) where the first video ends up, while the lion dance groups are passing through. In this video we can see the activity of various people who surround a lion dance group as it moves from one store to another,
|Figure 9a. Entering Chinatown. [watch video online]|
|Video by Konrad Aderer, 2010.|
|Figure 9b. Mott and Hester Streets, Lunar New Year 2011. [watch video online]|
|Video by Konrad Aderer, 2011.|
continuing its drumbeat and cymbals as all the groups do through the entire festival. There are people appearing to enjoy the performance and crowd as they pass by. A young man creates a rambunctious performance of his own using one of the firework tubes on sale throughout Chinatown. There are NYPD Community Affairs officers observing. A large proportion of the crowd are young Chinese American members and friends of the group are dutifully standing around. We can also see many people with cameras.
This event could easily be characterized as a spectacle as delineated by Debord and political economy-focused urban sociologists, or as a tourist enjoyment promoted by an “ethnic theme park.” However, if simply finding and emphasizing elements of tourism and commercialization at a large urban cultural event prove its disneyification, one must conclude there is no such thing as authentic urban ethnic culture. One of the virtues of an urban culturalist approach is to avoid idealizing culture as something inherently exotic and magically free from economic realities.
There are culture-themed events in the Chinatowns in which marketing and commerce dominate the activities and visual elements. The Better Chinatown Society, which describes itself as a “volunteer association,” organizes festivals and parades sponsored by Chinatown businesses
|Figure 10. Autumn Moon Festival organized by Better Chinatown Society, September 2010.|
|Photograph by Konrad Aderer, 2010.|
and multinational corporations, which are featured prominently in signage (Figure 10). Their Lunar New Year parade, a separate event from the festival that is the focus of this study, includes lion dance groups along with MOCA and other community organizations. Another major annual event is their Autumn Moon Festival, which I observed in September 2010. A lion dance group from Staten Island performed, and large crowds lined up for free giveaways dispensed from corporate canopies, then quickly dispersed.
The Chinatown lion dance groups in this study also perform for fees at weddings and corporate events throughout the year. As we will learn in the next section, the bases of economic survival for the groups vary along with their other characteristics.
Lunar New Year 2010
|Figure 11a. Chinatown Community Young Lions (CCYL) begin their performance for Lunar New Year 2010. [watch video online]|
|Video by Konrad Aderer, 2010.|
|Figure 11b. CCYL lions.|
|Video still by Konrad Aderer, 2010.|
I ventured to Chinatown on the two successive weekends when the 2010 Lunar New Year celebrations were being celebrated by more than twenty lion dance troupes. The first weekend I touched down on Grand and Mulberry Streets, videotaping as I rounded the corner and walked east on Grand. To begin a process of linking the theory of ethnic vernacular and cultural spectacle with the motivations of the people involved, I had contacted one of the lion dance troupes, the Chinatown Community Young Lions (CCYL), and gotten their permission to videotape their Lunar New Year procession and interview two of their principal organizers. I got to the Mott Street headquarters of CCYL in time to meet my contact Diane Lee, a woman in her late 20s/early 30s who responded when I contacted the group through their website, and, it turned out, went to school with my white half-brother.
This was the first time I had seen the ceremonial entrance of a lion dance group onto the street. Though the lions tend to be the focus of images and video of the lion dance, the drum and cymbals are an inseparable part of the performance. Typically the players process behind the lions in a chariot-like conveyance prominently decorated with the group’s symbols, and other members carry tall flags and poles used to cordon off space for performance. In the Figure 11a video it is clear that the music precedes the entrance of the actual lions, in this case two of them. There are several characters of lion which are signified by color. Black lions signify youth, befitting the group’s name and their mission, which we will learn more about below (Figure 11b).
|Figure 12. Yee’s Hung Ga International Kung Fu School lion dance team. [watch video online]|
|Video by Konrad Aderer, 2010.|
The second weekend of the Lunar New Year festival, I entered Chinatown from the Grand Street subway stop and proceeded west. This time I encountered an entirely different and even more visceral transition to Chinatown, in the shape of an exceptionally large lion dance troupe, which I can best describe as a horde of mostly male, physically intimidating non-Chinese equipped not only with lions but with a long dragon held up on poles (Figure 12). I was soon to hear more about this group, called Yee’s Hung Ga martial arts school, in the next stage of my research.
The New Year procession of the lion dancers is a visual spectacle of art, skill and great endurance. The experience of a spectator leisurely walking through Chinatown and encountering groups by chance is very different from that of a researcher following one group. Following CCYL I noticed they were much more often in motion than performing in place, and that the basic component of their routes was a repeated and often fairly perfunctory and rushed interaction proceeding from one merchant to the next.
If the space allowed, the lion would enter deeper inside the establishment to an altar. The merchant would then present the lion with a red envelope of money which the lion would take in its mouth (Figure 13). At the conclusion of the performance the lion would face the counter or the entrance of the store, and execute three bows. I later learned how this transaction was negotiated formally in advance: the group would give the merchant a note from the group offering to dance at his establishment. After the dance and the red envelope, a group member would hand the merchant a thank-you note.
|Figure 13. CCYL in Chinatown mall and red envelope transaction. [watch video online]|
|Video by Konrad Aderer, 2010|
The Lunar New Year processions of lion dance troupes necessarily involve the involvement of the New York Police Department. All lion dance groups meet with NYPD one month before the festival, where the NYPD issues maps to each group showing the route they have established (Figure 14).
From the route map and description we can see the extent of the undertaking in store for each lion dance group in the all-day festival, and its impact on urban space when multiplied by 20 or more. Though the fact that a group’s route is so specifically planned would tend to belie any characterization of this activity as a dérive, the improvisation that takes place block-by-block and the variations in styles and types of interaction make this something other than a generalized spectacle.
|Figure 14. NYPD parade route map for United East Athletic Association (UEAA) lion dance team|
|Source: United East Athletic Association|
I observed two basic modes of the Chinatown lion dance: the lion-to-merchant encounter and the street exhibition, a spectacular, crowd-pleasing performance typically done at the beginning and end of the group’s route that day. The more skilled and well equipped groups, with more lions to animate, perhaps even a clownish Buddha character, will stop and take over a street for some time and gather an audience of hundreds (Figure 15a). There is a repertoire of stunts which are part of the lion dance tradition. Many involve eating a symbolic object placed in a challenging
|Figure 15a. Southern Praying Mantis lion dance group. [watch online]|
|Video by Konrad Aderer, 2010.|
|Figure 15b. CCYL on Mott Street below Canal Street. [watch online]|
|Video by Konrad Aderer, 2011.|
place to reach. The stunt can be presented as a test by a merchant in exchange for a larger sum of money, hence the merchant encounter can sometimes become as spectacular as the street exhibition.
In Figure 15a, the video of a performance by the Norman Chin Southern Praying Mantis martial arts school, shows how large the impact of a performance can be. Five synchronized lions and a Buddha performer play out a traditional interaction, and the performance culminates in the lion “eating” a lettuce head hung off a fire escape.
Figure 15b shows a sizable crowd harnessed by CCYL. However, this is not a stationary performance but actually a pause in traveling on the route. In fact, it is not the lions who appear to be generating most of the crowd’s excitement, but the musicians. In the Southern Praying Mantis performance a large area has been marked off by group members holding staves, as can also be seen in the CCYL opening performance of Figure 11a. But in Figure 15b no large space has been cleared for the lions. The CCYL performance here appeared to be a spontaneous elevation in the energy of the musician crew at that moment, feeding off the crowd as well as the expansive and central spot we were in, just below Canal Street.
A Situationist analysis of these performances is illuminating but inconclusive. On the one hand, there is a disruption of the rationalist grid: anyone using the street for simply getting from one place to another is caught in the crowd. On the other, this event is very much a spectacle in its clear separation of performer from spectator. Yet following the festival over the course of the day, many moments of spontaneity unfold through the interactions of the immediate space and the people present. In the hours of footage there are hundreds of moments which can be subjected to an analysis of unitary urbanism like one-minute segment above. Whether a spectacle or a constructed situation, however, the sociological meaning of these performances must incorporate an ethnographic understanding of the groups who bring it about year after year.
The Chinatown lion dance is distinct from many other festivals and processions in the way it blends symbolic practices with community relationships and the local economy. Each lion dance group has its own unique history and claim to perform in this festival. This claim can be contested, as we will see in the next section. The lion dance groups must cover virtually the entire recognized territory of Chinatown in order to complete a transaction with as many merchants as it can, according to the relationships it has established. In following sections we will see how variations in each group’s membership and performing style relate to the history and social goals of each group.
Mentorship and Inclusion: Chinatown Community Young Lions
Except where noted, the following account is based on an interview with Lou Huang, one of the original members of Chinatown Community Young Lions (CCYL), which was founded in 1973. The interview took place in a small, cluttered office space leased by Lou which was the Manhattan meeting place of the group, though the lions and equipment were stored in Brooklyn.
For Lou, gangs figure prominently in his narrative of growing up in Manhattan Chinatown. In the 1980s, when Lou was a teenager, the gangs enforced the turf of different tongs, and any young Chinese male who ventured into the wrong territory was subject to a beating and pressure to join. The incentive to offer youth an alternative to gangs and other pitfalls of being a teenager in New York City was repeatedly cited as a major reason for CCYL to exist.
A pivotal moment in the history of Chinatown was when a central tong leader known as “Uncle Seven” died. This led to a power struggle among the tongs, and created the opportunity for a comprehensive police crackdown on organized crime in Chinatown. The new mayor of New York City, Rudolph Giuliani, ordered several arrests of Chinese organized crime suspects after the funeral. His ensuing campaign also included cleaning house in the police force, weeding out the corrupt officers who had been on payroll of tongs.
Lou believed the gangs had in effect been driven underground. He cited the increased surveillance of businesses as an important factor. With so many businesses monitored by surveillance cameras, it was too risky for gang members to harass businesses because they could be identified. Lou believed the gangs “went to Queens and Brooklyn.” Interestingly, Lou said that several former members of CCYL had become police officers, including the husband of my other informant, Diane, and a female former member who holds a rank “higher than detective.”
The recurring themes Lou presented were a sense of the group’s uniqueness, as a nonprofit whose mission was to provide mentorship to the youth who pass through its ranks, and a sense of being beset by hostile forces. Previously CCYL had a space provided by the city, in 70 Mulberry Street, the former home of MOCA. But they had been ousted from the space amidst accusations that youth members were having sex and doing drugs in the building, which Lou vehemently denied, and saw as part of a conscious campaign on the part of many to in effect destroy CCYL: “a lot of people don’t want us around.”
Lou opened a store of his own in 1992 and thus could speak to meaning of the lion-merchant transaction from both sides. He said this interaction was “a necessary cultural religious service we provide…once you’re inside there’s no tourists inside the store, you’re performing for that person.” As a merchant, Lou believed the money he gave would come back to him. For
CCYL the money was a vital resource for the maintenance of the group and its activities, more so than the other groups I spoke with.
The amounts in the envelopes were getting smaller from year to year due to the increased number of groups. The Yee’s Hung Ga group were “obnoxious,” as they came from New Jersey and “don’t do anything for Chinatown.” Lou found it offensive that despite being overwhelmingly non-Chinese, the group would take along one Chinese man to obtain envelopes of cash from the merchants, a practice I witnessed. In addition to Yee’s Hung Ga, that Lunar New Year I saw another largely non-Chinese lion dance group from a town in New Jersey more than 50 miles away.
CCYL distinguishes itself as a group that has never taught kung fu, which Lou saw as “teaching kids to be violent.” Arising from concerns integral to the personal histories of second-generation Chinatown residents, CCYL purports to use the ritual of the lion dance as a locus for a style of mentorship that originally evolved as an alternative to gangs: “the lion dance is secondary to what we do. Mentorship, guidance – like talking kids out of bad decisions.”
CCYL also seeks to maintain a multigenerational and multicultural exchange. Though most of the CCYL members I saw appeared to be Chinese or Asian, I also noticed young members from other ethnic groups, whom CCYL professes to be one the first lion dance groups to include. Lou’s sister was also one of the first women in Chinatown to perform the lion dance, previously exclusive to men.
The stories and views Lou imparted of persecution, struggle and uniqueness seem to function as “symbolic repertoires,” portrayals a group tells of itself to itself, in this case a conviction that the world was against them and the group’s survival from year to year was precarious. These sentiments seemed foster a deep and emotional bond among the core members (Lee 323). As he spoke, Diane and her husband, both organizers of the group, chimed in their support of any claims that an outsider might be inclined to doubt. At one point he had to stop speaking because he was overcome with emotion.
My focus on the performance aspect of CCYL in this research has minimized the other career goals and political engagement of these second-generation Chinese New Yorkers. Recently the leaders of CCYL wrote a letter to keep the Zawahiri trial out of the nearby court district, because of the expected negative impact of heightened security on Chinatown. Their engagement in the “trenches” of economic involvement, that is, the groups which organize in response to hostile forces, arise from “not only places within a city’s geography but also as tied to specific racial or national-origin groups” (Marwell 2004).
Chinese New Year 2011: Contraction
Lunar New Year 2011 was an overcast day that felt to be in the 30s. I crossed Grand and Bowery at 11:50 a.m. Not knowing exactly where the assigned route was for the lion dancers, I found my way primarily through sound. This time the Hung Ga group from New Jersey was the first one I found. Lion dance-related merchandise was more prominent to me this year, though this could have been simply a shift in my own attention. I noticed that the merchants had traditional Chinese noisemakers, with lion dance items for sale including miniature lion heads. I also saw a child in a small lion dance costume.
I met my original CCYL contact, Diane Lee, who told me about the annual meeting with police. There were 18 lion dance groups this year, and the police had announced that because of budget cutbacks, all parades were limited to five hours. This added a level of difficulty to CCYL’s route, since it now had to cover the same distance and perform for the same number of merchants in significantly less time. The group coped with this challenge by splitting into two groups of performers. Members of the group seemed to be under stress as a result; I saw one of the youth get angry and yell at an elder leader over a decision she made.
United East Athletic Association, a group discussed further on in this paper, would later tell me that in previous years there had been no strictly enforced stop time for the festival, and some groups would still be performing at 8 p.m. The new 4:30 p.m. cutoff made it very difficult for groups to finish their whole route as they often would be stuck behind another group. In addition, the early stop threatened the big finales the groups from martial arts schools would typically stage, to demonstrate skills that could not be showcased along the route. That year I was particularly impressed by Wan Hi Ming Institute, who created a seamless performance that for the first time made me feel I was watching a living creature (Figure 16).
This appears to be another merchant performance, but instead of a large crowd attracted by noise and large number of lions, a group gathered on Canal street quietly watches, transfixed by the performers’ skill. No one sets off any fireworks. This audience is relatively small, but the space they occupy still blocks this sidewalk along the major artery that cuts across lower Manhattan.
|Figure 16: Wan Chi Ming Institute lion dance group. [watch online]|
|Video by Konrad Aderer, 2011.|
The following Lunar New Year I saw the Wan Chi Ming group as a central attraction in the Sunset Park festival, performing a spectacular and very different repertoire high above the crowd on stilts. They were probably hired by the organizers of the Sunset Park Festival, the Brooklyn Chinese American Association. The BCA’s own lion dance group also performed, but it was evident the skills and equipment of the Wan Chi Ming group were required due to the sheer size of the crowd gathered for the festival.
Though Wei, the young doctor who had first introduced me to the topic, had been focused on the skill of the lion dancers, in my research I had initially put the aesthetic qualities of the dancing itself aside as I focused on the motivations of the people in the groups. The Slovenz account of the Chinatown lion dance, written from a performance studies perspective, focused on martial arts schools and tong-affiliated benevolent associations, and did not include community organizations like CCYL or United East. But I believed the difference in quality I saw in the performance of the Wan Hi Ming Institute was connected with a difference in training and social purpose, which I eventually was able to learn about through a kung fu teacher, known in Chinese as a sifu.
A Sifu on the Outskirts
I was put in touch with Sifu Li Shing by an acquaintance, and met him at a busy Dunkin’ Donuts in the Fashion District of Manhattan (along 7th Avenue in the 20s). He was a compact, fit-looking man with sparse, closely cropped hair who appeared to be in his 50s. Sifu Li Shing had performed the lion dance every year during the Chinatown festival from about 1992 to 2007. He had led his own martial arts school, but during the economic downturn had lost students and had to rent space to teach.
Though I had consciously been using the term “Lunar New Year” for some time, since the occasion is celebrated across Asia, Li corrected me, saying that when speaking of the Chinatown festival, the day should be called “Chinese New Year,” since the lion dance there was a Chinese form. Li said nowadays any community group could perform lion dances for money, but without a resident sifu, what they practiced was only basic moves. The lion dance based in kung fu reflected the authentic tradition, and was stronger, more expressive.
When I asked him what the lion dance meant to him he replied, “keeping the culture alive.” His response reintroduced the question of what “culture” meant to him. Tradition and etiquette were the most prominent principles running through his kung fu-oriented account of the lion dance. Li was the first of my interviewees to tell me about the rituals for “bringing the lion head to life,” which included the use of fresh ginger and a cinnamon poultice which represented blood. The eyes and horn of the lion head were not to be touched. When lions from different schools passed each other on the street it was very important they bow their heads, since a raised head was a challenge to fight.
Li invited me to observe his kung fu class, and I followed him to a nearby dance and performance rental space. The first student I met was a young Latino who led the warm-up exercises, including push-ups and abdominal crunches, counting in Chinese. Gradually three more students showed up, large white men in their 30s or 40s who showed vigorous enthusiasm as Li began teaching the class. I was invited to participate. As an aikido student and having previously practiced tae kwon do, I found the training vigorous but not completely unfamiliar. Holding the kind of pads typically used in boxing and karate, Sifu Li coached me through some combinations of punching, ducking and striking with the knee.
The preceding interviews and observations impart what truly animates the kinetic symbols of Chinatown’s lion dance groups: social goals, values and the experiential aspects of learning the dance itself. Youth mentorship, openness of participation, and the repudiation of violence can counterbalance the kung fu-derived athletic skill and the emphasis on the precise authenticity of the lion dance rituals. The link between culture and place expresses itself in the subjects’ narratives and what they emphasize in Chinatown history. They indicate that lion dance groups are broadly differentiated between a community orientation and a kung fu orientation. However, the next groups discussed demonstrate how these orientations are not mutually exclusive.
The Lion’s Heirs Find Their Way
The headquarters of United East Athletic Association (UEAA) is in 70 Mulberry Street, the former home of MOCA and CCYL mentioned above. The second-floor room UEAA occupies is about 30 feet square, with 15-foot ceilings and a loft platform on one side for storage. There is a large altar high up on the far wall from the entrance, with two white lion heads mounted on either side. As I look around, I realize the space is not solely used for lion dance practice. Pictures and announcements on the bulletin board refer to other activities, and there is a glass case labeled “English Enrichment” that is filled with books.
At the time of my visit there were six weeks before the Chinese New Year festival. Six people of Chinese or Asian ancestry were involved in lion dance practice: three men and a woman who appeared to be in their 20s to 30s took turns working on moves with two lion heads, while a teenage girl worked to keep a traditional beat going on the drums, under the guidance of a woman in her 20s.
My contact, Alex Pei, was the group’s leader, tall with a low-key demeanor. The practice had an unstructured, ad hoc feel, but certain members guided the others and gave instruction over the course of the two hours I was there. In this setting the importance of the drumming took on an added meaning: it was what gave the practice session a feeling of attention and purpose. The woman guiding the teenage drummer repeatedly urged her to keep the beat going.
Almost as soon as I sat down to take notes, I was invited to put on a lion head and learn something. The move was simple, essentially taking three steps forward and crouching into a “horse stance” familiar to me from my martial arts training – legs spread wide with feet parallel – while lowering the head. But I found myself struggling for fifteen minutes mostly with how to hold and move the head, as three members in succession gave me sometimes conflicting guidance.
After I settled back into observing, I noticed that each member seemed to be working mainly independently, and the moves being practiced were very brief and discrete: a special large, sturdy red bowl was placed on the ground and members practiced walking up to it and jumping up onto it, balancing with their feet on opposite edges. A long time was spent working together on a particular jumping side step; a member with a lion head crouched still and low to the ground for an extended time, and as the lion head’s eyes opened I realized he was practicing “waking up.”
The practice session came to a close as members began to leave and some new people arrived and begin setting up a ping pong table. Alex and another member put the lion heads and other items on the wall or in the storage loft. Seeing them both carry lion heads by the horn reminded me of Sifu Li Sheng’s proscription against doing just that, though as I observed it seemed the most practical way to carry them without damage.
After practice I spoke with Alex and two of the more senior members: Patricia Chien, the woman who was instructing the teenage drummer, and Eddie Lau, who arrived at the end of the practice; short-haired, stocky, and about the same age as the others. Alex’s and Eddie’s narratives about Chinatown’s history of gang domination echoed those of Lou from CCYL, though given their ages it seemed they must be repeating what their elders had told them rather than their direct experience. They saw the Giuliani-era changes in Chinatown, such as the suppression of the gangs and cleaner streets, in a positive light. The outlawing of firecrackers made the lion dance performances safer and approachable by families with small children.
Unlike CCYL, the United East Athletic Association was not solely focused on lion dancing. It had begun as an nonprofit in 1976 dedicated to helping assimilation and character-building of Chinese immigrant youth through sports, and over time added the Chinese cultural activities of “dragon boat racing” and the lion dance group. The three members agreed that essentially the UEAA was “like the YMCA.”
Patricia lives in New Jersey but has always regularly come to Chinatown due to her parents longstanding ties to the area. Her father used to run a business there, a store selling Hong Kong videos. After 9/11 her father’s supplier stopped exporting, but with the help of relationships from Chinatown he was able to start over in insurance. Her parents were both members of UEAA since its founding, so she was involved with the club in various ways all her life but she began getting involved in the lion dance ten years ago, when she was in middle school, almost by accident. She had often followed the lion dance group around to help in various ways and one day she just started clanging the cymbals, which led to her learning to drum and regularly participate. Giving the teenage girl guidance in drumming during the practice session I observed had reminded her of her own hesitation when she was learning. She used to “drum, mess up, stop, drum, mess up, stop …but you have to keep going even when you make a mistake.”
Alex’s parents were both involved in lion dancing, and he became interested in it from the time he was a small child. As a teenager he studied lion dancing by watching videos. A sifu did train the UEAA group for a brief time but Alex picked up much of what he knows through videos and observing the Chinatown martial arts groups. He does feel a sense of limitation in not having a sifu, as far as the group being able to progress in the art. In leading the group and deciding what routines to learn Alex focused on giving respect to the art and not pushing members to learn “crazy stunts” where safety became too much of an issue.
Eddie had been involved with other activities of UEAA including coaching basketball for some time before he was pulled into lion dance about ten years ago by virtue of his friendship with Alex. Helping out at UEAA was his main reason for coming to Chinatown. Though he was happy to see that the area had been made safer and cleaner and garnered more tourist traffic, he knew he could “get better noodles in Queens.”
The ad hoc, individually constructed ethos of the UEAA lion dance group could be further analyzed as of a piece with Beck’s theory of individualism in the “second modernity.” The core members’ ties to Chinatown and the group blend the inherited with the individually chosen. Their relaxed attitude, in contrast with the idealistic struggle of the Chinatown Community Young Lions, may partly arise from the resources UEAA has that CCYL lacks particularly a comfortable Chinatown training space.
But in the post-gang, post-Giuliani and post-9/11 epoch of Chinatown culture, the diversification of practices that carry the lion head into the next generation may be a manifestation of the hybrid culture of glocalization. Though globalization homogenizes elements of culture, through glocalization local actors appropriate practices and symbols and reinvest them with meaning for their own ends (Shortell and Krase 2010).
Dispersal and Germination: A Chinatown Schoolteacher
Dae-hyun Kim is not Chinese, but Korean, an Ivy-League educated third grade teacher at a large Chinatown public school. He had no connection with Chinatown prior to teaching there. As a Los Angeles high school student he first learned lion dance with a sifu at a youth group in Los Angeles Chinatown. When he came to Columbia University he wanted to continue his lion dance training but was intimidated by the intensity and competitiveness he saw in the kung-fu trained New York Chinatown groups. He instead joined a Columbia group he found more approachable.
Dae-hyun seems to have carried the lion dance with him through a lifelong affinity: “I love the beats.” Now as a teacher he relishes organizing the school’s lion dance group, comprised of an ever-changing roster of students who train every day for two months leading up to Chinese New Year, led by a gym teacher. They join up with another public school to march in a parade put on for children and parents.
In this account we see how a single person has carried the lion dance like a seed across thousands of miles to reimplant in a Chinatown educational institution to pass on to the next generation. Holding onto what he loved about the lion dance and discarding the competitiveness he perceived as the dominant Chinatown paradigm, Dae-Hyun has used the form for building community through the lion dance ensemble itself, where “every person is important…the group becomes tight-knit.”
Old Lion, New Lion: Chinese Free Masons
On a mild January 2012 night I walked down Mott Street towards the address I had agreed to meet Wayne, a senior member of the Chinese Free Masons Athletic Club (CFMAC). It was two weeks before the Lunar New Year, and this “main drag” of Chinatown was lined with gift shops, some offering Year of the Dragon merchandise. As I approached the area where Mott Street departs from the grid, bending southeast to meet Park Row, the small open-air gift shops gave way to restaurants with dramatically lit upscale-looking signs.
I walked into a small second-floor law office where a meeting of several CFMAC members was wrapping up. Even apart from the fact that all the members present were male, the atmosphere struck me as more masculine than I had encountered with the other groups. One running aspect of their interaction I noticed was a kind of teasing with an edge of challenge. I had some difficulty getting across what I needed as a researcher; it seemed at first that no one was going to let me interview them.
Three younger members and Wayne remained when I started asking questions. Paul and Robert spoke of suffering racism growing up in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods in the Lower East Side. Chinatown was a refuge where they could be themselves. The lion dancers were heroes, masculine and tough Chinese kung fu practitioners. They joined Freemasons because “they were the strongest group;” and many joined through a family or friendship tie.
Paul, a confident and handsome CFMAC officer who seemed to be in his late 20s or early 30s, was 13 years old when he joined the group. He believed this group attracted youth who were misunderstood, and gave them a sense of family, mentorship. The senior members would become like a big brother or father. The training was rigorous, sure to get a person in shape, and Robert said he still had scars on his hands from handling the lion heads.
The New York chapter of CFMAC, also called Hung Sing, was established in 1956. CFMAC is part of an organization which traces its beginnings to 18th century China, where they were devoted to overthrowing the Qing Dynasty. When I attended CFMAC’s 55 year anniversary gala at Jing Fong restaurant some months earlier, the young members I talked to had expressed pride in that history.
Paul characterized the dancing style he was trained in as more aggressive and rooted in kung fu than that taught more recently, a more fluid and playful style derived from Chinese Opera. Though CFMAC is not a martial arts school, Wayne corrected me when I asked him to compare CFMAC to “kung fu groups,” responding, “We are a kung fu group.” CFMAC carries on an offshoot of the Southern Praying Mantis style called Jook Lum Gee Tong Long Pai, which according to Wikipedia was taught to the group by Sifu Lum Sang in the late 1950s.
A undertone of nostalgia suffused Wayne’s plain-spoken oral history. There used to be fewer groups, just five or six, that would perform, and the lion was the symbol of its school. There was more competition between these groups, and the dancing was more rigorous: “you couldn’t touch a lion head unless you were trained in kung fu.” Now, with up to 30 groups performing on Chinese New Year, Wayne believed that many were started by people out to “make a few bucks without following the rules of the group they used to be with.”
The gruff Wayne drew an unexpected and cogent parallel between the changes in Chinatown’s New Year festival over the decades and the West Village Halloween Parade, which started as a way for gays “to dress in drag without getting their freakin’ heads busted.” Despite being an outsider to this community, he was genuinely impressed in the parade’s early years by the motivation and creativity of the costumes he saw, like the “silver riders,” a mobilization of “like 300 people” who had painted their bodies silver. Now, he felt the parade had lost its meaning through casual mass participation and a more family-friendly orientation.
I pressed for Wayne’s explanation as to why he thought the Chinatown lion dance had declined over the years. He connected this phenomenon to commercialism and economic pressure. Immigrants became westernized more quickly because they did not have time to keep their culture alive. “Chinatown is dying,” and promoting tourism had become a preoccupation to the point where a second “Lunar New Year Parade” was sponsored on a different day, by a consortium of businesses called the Better Chinatown Society.
As I walked outside with Wayne, I had the feeling of having come full circle in the path I had started with trying to look at gentrification, touching down in the spot where Soho fed into Chinatown. Now I passed “for rent” signs in the windows of upscale commercial spaces on the other side of Chinatown’s central area.
Well with the skyrocketing rents hard to keep a business open. Especially when you have Police Plaza, like uh – it’s Fort Knox over there. You have Park Row closed people can’t access this section, that’s why this section is dead. This is one of busiest sections in Chinatown.
Wayne interpreted the urban vernacular of this moment against the backdrop of his own memories. The street used to be a lot livelier, instead of shutting down with nightfall as it was now. Back in the 1950s, the signs were neon, and a block further up Mott Street a restaurant displayed a giant dragon head breathing fire. As a board member on the recently created Business Improvement District, Wayne hoped to get rid of the security gates on the storefronts, which were not needed anymore and made the street look ugly.
Of the three active groups I studied, CFMAC was the one whose roots connected most directly with the old Chinatown of tongs and gangs. Yet Wayne, while expressing nostalgia for the virtues of that time, also asserted that lion dance groups cannot continue the same way they have or “they’ll go the way of the dinosaurs.” He spoke of the need for CFMAC to take on more community-supporting functions, such as teaching English and services for senior citizens.
As the place disperses, so the culture. For generations the lion head has been held aloft in Chinatown on changing narratives, symbolism and motivations. Lions who once represented the prowess of competing kung fu schools, tongs and gangs, now exist for the sake of divergent but more harmonious and inclusive social goals.
The data collected in this study indicate that the Chinese New Year lion dance performances and the groups themselves are not programmed for the sake of tourism or a “symbolic economy.” The participants I have interviewed are chiefly motivated by needs arising within the community, expressed through two chief epochal narratives of Chinatown history: the gang days and the 9/11 aftermath. Sharing these narratives affirms two intertwined imperatives: the mentorship of youth, and Chinatown’s survival as a community-place.
Other narratives include subjects’ personal histories of growing up in non-Chinese communities, or of how their family and friendship networks are intertwined with Chinatown. As an Asian American researcher, my own identification with the community deepened as I was drawn to these narratives and realized how they intersected with my life.
The perspective of the Situationist International has yielded some tools for analyzing the impact of these performances on urban consciousness. The video data convey some ways lion dance groups change the experience of urban space. Though the lion dance may appear standardized, engaged observation reveals distinct qualities by different groups in different settings, corresponding to the “ambiences” cultivated by the Situationists.
While the repetitive and determined path of the lion dance through the streets embodies nearly the opposite of drift on the part of the performers, in the spectators it invites a kind of drift, by breaking up the purposive travel of passersby. Correlating the narrative and video data affirms that for the participants, the lion dance is not merely a performance but a spiritual service provided for Chinatown merchants, and truly for the entire community.
My own “drift” into this topic from a feeling of solidarity with a Chinatown under threat has shown how there is no precise or fixed border around Chinatown as a place or community. The urban culturalist theme that culture and place cannot truly be separated becomes all the more relevant in this community-place undergoing sociospatial processes of dispersal. The sublimination of gang culture, economic pressures, and the increasing importance of satellite Chinatowns have resulted not in a hollowed-out “carnival mask” of traditional culture but a dispersal and reappropriation. The decline of the core Chinatown as an area of first settlement may be leading to cultural decentralization on one hand, while on the other awakening a more active, personal investment in core Chinatown by succeeding generations of stakeholders.
The three Chinatown lion dance groups I studied were possibly the only three that are incorporated as nonprofits. Though I have interviewed a kung fu sifu who formerly performed at Lunar New Year, I did not interview members of the kung fu schools currently performing in the festival. This paper thus cannot claim to be a comprehensive survey of the groups that perform on Chinese New Year. I also did not interview children, since the IRB committee indicated that including minors might delay approval. While children were not the focus of this study, they would need to be interviewed in future work to evaluate the mentorship role lion dance groups have taken. To more fully explore the effect of the performances on urban consciousness, research would be needed that includes further observation of and interviews with spectators.
For some years it has been impossible to sociologically understand Manhattan Chinatown in isolation from the Chinatowns in Brooklyn and Queens, and the kinetic lion dance form demonstrates a corresponding spatial paradox of urban ethnic culture: its mobility and rootedness. Even as the lion dance form travels thousands of miles from China to Los Angeles and New York, carried like a seed by a single person like a public school teacher, it needs a place to germinate into community-sustaining practices.
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