Lions Dance In The Year Of The Dog
The sound of barking filled the air; now drums and cymbals rose to meet it as bodies packed Whitney Avenue. Phones came out of pockets and fixed on a single circle on the street, where a rum pum pum was hammering away. With slow, steady steps, a red-and-yellow lion danced within it and began to scale a pole, eyes on a green bundle near the top.
He caught it in his mouth and chewed methodically. He shook his head from side to side. To cheers human and canine alike, deep green leaves rained down on the crowd.
Saturday, hundreds gathered in and around the Audubon Arts District for New Haven’s seventh annual Lunarfest, ringing in the Chinese New Year with a day of lion dances, arts and crafts, interactive performances and cultural workshops.
More than 2,000 people attended some part of the day-long event, a collaboration among the Yale-China Association, Yale Council of East Asian Studies, and New Haven Museum with funding from the City of New Haven.
The festivities kicked off a little after 10 a.m., as Chinese lion dancers, drummers, and martial artists assembled at Whitney Avenue and Grove Street, their reds, greens and yellows electric against the street’s brick buildings.
At the center of the group, Warren Wan was a flash of metallic red, coordinating members of the Wan Chi Ming Hung Gar Institute Dragon and Lion Dance Team. Just steps away from him, Lunarfest Producer Emily Reeder ran through last-minute details, making sure the parade’s Grand Marshall, Yale University mascot Handsome Dan, was standing by.
He was, running in circles at attendees’ feet and whimpering as drums ran through a line or two. Asked for comment, he said he was “pleased to be repping the Year of The Dog” (year 4715 in the Chinese lunar calendar), but asked not to be photographed, as he did not wish to scare any small children attending the parade.
“If people want to see what I look like, I think I’m on the side of a bus or something,” he added, seeing if he could pull away from his human handler, Kevin Discepolo.
He didn’t have too long to wait. With an explosion of deep drums, the parade crew lurched into action. Following Handsome Dan were city officials, Lunarfest representatives and three bright, furry lions. As they marched, attendees multiplied along Whitney Avenue, several holding out hongbao—lucky red envelopes, etched with gold lettering across the top—for the lions.
The lions stopped for each extended hand, taking the hongbao into their papier-mâché mouths with large, blinking eyes.
Behind them, drummers played on, hammering out a rhythm that the lions danced to as they walked. As hundreds swarmed around them, they turned down Audubon Street, where Lunarfest volunteers had hung 1,000 red lanterns the day before. There, they came to a stop in front of Creative Arts Workshop and the Educational Center for the Arts (ECA), resting their paws on the street’s brick bump out.
“It blows my mind that this is the year 4715,” said New Haven Mayor Toni Harp. “I want to thank you for celebrating it here. I want to wish all of you a Happy New Year, and I want all of you to appreciate this year of the Earth Dog.”
She added that the city will be sending a delegation to Changsha, China, New Haven’s eighth and newest sister city, with the Yale-China association in April. She did not say whether or not she would be part of that delegation.
As the crowd gathered beneath red lanterns, the parade gave way to a lineup of performances. Back for another year, the Connecticut Yankee Chorus performed “Rainbow Sister” (Hong Cai Mei Mei), breaking into a multi-part harmony as their voices coasted over attendees who leaned in to listen. In front of them, Audubon Street was packed with people all the way to Whitney.
Hong cai mei mei heng ai ai yo/Chang de hao na me heng ai ai yo, they sang, voices rolling over the last word of each line. Ying tao xiao zui heng ai ai yo/Yi dian dian na me heng ai ai yo.
As they took a bow, young dancers from the Southern Connecticut Chinese School ran up to take their place, the youngest dancers bobbing with red paper lanterns as the older ones twirled, red and white ribbons trailing through the air. When their music mysteriously cut out, they kept going, one whispering that the dance was keeping her from getting too cold in the just-above-freezing temperatures.
They made way for members of the Wu Dang Kungfu Academy, master Jack Gao cheering on his students from the side as they twirled, jumped, somersaulted and kicked the air around them. Gliding through the air, father-son duo Stanley and Jubei D’Amato put a balletic spin on martial arts, performing a series of squirming, snake-like movements on the cool ground before running through the space, and going airborne for seconds at a time.
When they finished, the parade wound back on to Whitney for a traditional Lion Dance. Earlier in the morning, Reeder had said that those acts, as well as the day’s jam-packed schedule of activities, reflected this year’s theme of “People to People.”
“The idea was to build cross-cultural awareness in breaking down bridges of misunderstanding,” she said. “What are the things that bring people together across culture? Those things are humor, art, music, dance, food—and in this case, man’s best friend.”
As lions ushered in the New Year, confetti joining lettuce leaves and more hongbao on Whitney, families headed to activities spread across Luce Hall, the Yale-China Association, New Haven Museum, Creative Arts Workshop, Neighborhood Music School and Ely Center for Contemporary Art.
Taking her son Shawn by the hand, Wei Wu made her way up Whitney to the New Haven Museum, where dog-themed postcard making, face painting, calligraphy and lantern-building had just begun.
A temporary New Havener by way of Beijing, Wu said that Lunarfest helped her feel more at home during a culturally significant time of year. As Shawn debated whether to use a Golden Retriever or German Shepherd on his postcard, Wu chatted eagerly in Mandarin with Ivy Lo, one of Lunarfest’s bilingual volunteers Clad in red-shirts and name tags in both English and Chinese, hundreds of volunteers spread out for the event.
At the table beside Wu, father and daughter Yonghao and Lei Tian were also using the festival to reconnect with home. Born and raised in northern China, Lei Tian said that she gets homesick this time of year, thinking of the pork and cabbage dumplings and bright, loud fireworks that populated the New Year’s celebrations of her youth. As she cut a butterfly from red construction paper, she said that the museum is “a good place for us to celebrate, and for other people to learn about our culture.”
As she spoke, her father dipped a brush in black ink, and carefully drew out two pages of calligraphy. A small audience of kids gathered behind him, spellbound as he lowered his face to the words. Happy New Year, read one of them. May everything be good this year read the other. It was shaping up to have an auspicious start: activities at the museum were so popular that it reached 500 within the first hour of activities, and 1,258 by the end of the day.
Down Whitney Avenue and on Audubon Street and Hillhouse Avenue, similar activities unfolded. At the Yale-China Association, Yale-China Fellows Abby Zhang and Jane Tang led a “lantern riddle” game, attendees puzzling over questions that spilled out from red lanterns. Performers flooded Luce Hall and Neighborhood Music School, bringing tastes of traditional Chinese opera, tai chi, and dance to audiences.
And with a nod to this year’s zodiac symbol—“We’re still figuring out the year of the pig,” Yale-China President David Youtz joked—the Lunarfest team also worked to include several dog-themed activities throughout the day. Inside Luce Hall sat representatives from the Yale Center for Canine Cognition and Edgewood Dog Park. Outside, a pet adoption van from the New Haven Animal Shelter was empty on the street, cargo running happily on leashes outside.
“I’m pretty jazzed about being included in today’s lineup,” said Pop, a nine-year-old mutt who had arrived at the shelter with his friend, Mama, several months ago. “Now I just need one of these people to take me home.”