There is a mini-brouhaha about who gets the coveted honour of leading the dancing group in the Chinese New Year parade in Chinatown.
In recent years, the Hon Hsing Athletic Club, which was started on Pender Street in 1939, has been at the helm. This weekend, it’ll be a team from the Teo Chew Society of Vancouver, that was established in 1987 on Hastings Street.
There are definitely many gossipy views circulating. One is the diplomatic version with different teams taking turns. Others include a heated meeting, a secret ballot and the influence of backers.
The parade is a well-known Vancouver fixture, drawing thousands of well-wishers. This year, it’ll be held on Sunday in celebration of the Year of the Dog that starts Friday, according to the lunar calendar.
Participants from across the region, including high schoolers, university students, tech and finance executives, as well as veterans and retirees, have been adding extra practice hours and prepping vintage costumes for their lion and dragon dances, martial arts performances and marching routines. It’s a Vancouver occasion replete with Scottish Highland dancers and Sikh motorcycle riders.
And way in the background, there are unspoken rules, traditions and changes to keep up with the times, as is to be expected with an event that goes back 45 years.
Which is why Jun Ing, chief coordinator of the parade, is only too happy to clear up the drama and explain some of the intricacies.
Firstly, he emphasizes, it’s the VIPs who lead the parade, “the Premier, the Lieutenant-governor,” followed by the veterans and a marching band.
After that, he concedes, “everyone wants to be the first dragon or lion (dancing) group.”
This year, it came down to Teo Chew offering a dragon with 13 dancers compared to Hon Hsing’s one with only nine, says Ing, adding size matters, but “we don’t measure the length of the costumes, we count the number of dancers.”
He chuckles at all the chatter.
There used to be more dragon and lion dancers for the Chinatown parade, but with malls and community centres also hiring them at the same time, the numbers have been diminishing.
These dancers are supposed to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck to merchants, a ritual that involves stopping off at each store front to nip at a dangling head of lucky lettuce and receive an envelope filled with cash. In Chinatown, the parade route includes hundreds of stores and not many teams are up for the time-consuming task these days, says Ing.
“To entice people, and keep peace, we created two separate random draws (to determine placement), one for groups willing to go to the stores and one for the others.”
The draw for the groups willing to go to the stores generally involves fewer participants, meaning that, for teams really gunning for a front spot, their chances are higher with this option.
Nevertheless, it remains that traditions of ranking by animal and then size of animal still trump.
“It goes dragons, unicorns and then lions,” says Ing, explaining that this order has been the case for the Vancouver parade going back some decades. “We don’t want to break that.”
Dragons seem to be prime because these costumes are more expensive and rare. In fact, Danny Quon, head instructor at Hon Hsing, says it was only in 2014, that “somebody gave us a dragon costume. He donated it because he thought it was time we have one.”
Michael Tan, a tech executive who has participated in the parade for nearly 20 years, says talk of such competing has been amusing because, in reality, there is more co-operating than not.
Lion Dancers Michael Tan (right) and his master Peter Wong in Vancouver, BC, February 15, 2018.
He says elders such as Peter Wong have long been associated with Hon Hsing, but also mentored him at his smaller Chau Luen club and is also a “consultant for the Mah’s society.”
They are considered masters of the way “kung-fu, martial arts, and dragon and lion dancing happen hand-in-hand” and have been passing their knowledge. “It’s all about promoting and preserving the cultural practice,” says Tan.