Chinese New Year's Eve Celebration 2006
Chinatown - Philadelphia, PA - January 28, 2006

I've lived in Philly (well, in or nearby) for 6 years now and I've driven and walked through the wonderful choatic beauty of Chinatown a bazillion times. Truthfully, I drive through on purpose because I like it so much. I make sure it's on my way to or from Center City or South Street or Penn's Landing or anywhere near 10th & Arch. My two jury duty stints were mere blocks away, so I parked in Chinatown. The Electric Factory is just down the street; hell the Trocadero Theater is IN Chinatown - so for shows at those places, I always park nearby or right in the middle. Heaven. A couple of friends and I went to some kind of an Asian festival there a few years ago; there was dancing, singing, martial arts demonstrations... a spectacular cultural sponge-moment. I don't even remember the name or reason or date, but it wasn't cold. I bought a bonsai tree for a good friend right after that trip.

Back to now. I'd heard about the Chinese New Year - there was always a parade of some sort, some strange ceremonies and traditions. It follows the lunar calendar, so it isn't ever anywhere near December 31, and it isn't even the same day or in the same month every year. And then the whole Year of the ________. That took me some time to grasp, how there's an animal cycle and every year is associated with one animal, but they rotate so that the same animal comes around every 12 years (called the Chinese Zodiac). I found out I was born in the Year of the Tiger, which frankly disappointed me because I so badly wanted to be born in the Year of the Monkey because that just seemed meant to be. 'Tis ok, though. Tigers are pretty cool, too. At least I ain't an ox.
[Which animal are you?]

But I always missed the Chinese New Year celebration, either I always heard about it after the fact, or wasn't aware enough to look it up beforehand. And the city doesn't do a great job of letting it be known outside of Chinatown. I finally remembered to put it on my calendar and made it this year. Finally. It didn't quite end up nearly as awesome as I hoped it would be, but it was definitely interesting... and I took some pictures. I guess they did a version of this "parade" daily for a week straight, during the day but I went on the night of the first one, hence the actual new year's eve, and because of that the pictures were all taken at night and kinda dark. There's a ton. Some of them are all right. Bring 'em on. They are entirely chronological.
Welcome to the Year Of The Dog.
Links to informational websites about the meanings of all this stuff will follow the pictures.


I got there plenty early - not knowing how crowds would be or where the parade route would go. I had an intersection and a start time. I get there and there is absolutely nothing going on. No streets are blocked off, plenty of traffic, a few small groups of people hanging out here and there (including a handful of very caucasian college-aged males with "gatorade" bottles, acting very not sober and screaming out "happy new year!" every ten seconds.) I walked around. I did laps. I didn't want to look like a tool standing on the street waiting for something to happen. After some time I heard some kind of music going on, but it was several blocks away from the intersection listed for the parade - I gravitated toward the noise until I came upon a group of kids banging on some percussion instruments. Then more came out with some of those lion costumes you see in the news or on TV and started moving. But they were just carrying them down the sidewalk, single file. I followed. Other people were doing the same. They eventually arrived in front of a restaurant.

As you can see, traffic is still in effect! They started to perform some sort of choreographed routine with the costumes (2 persons per) and spilled out into the street, facing the restaurant. So nobody could see what they were doing except those who were IN the place or the few who just butted in front of them to take pictures. Very odd to me. Other folks had gathered around but could only either see from behind and across the street (like me) or from the side on the sidewalk.

When they started moving and dancing around, the music was synched with the movements and it was all very cool. Sharp movements and eyes lightin' up and all, very showy and agressive. But it was over in about 2 minutes, and then they all went into the building and up the stairs and disappeared. And we're all like... wha?? Where'd you go? So everybody who had gathered just kinda hung out, looking for more action or more yelling drunkly. Cops finally showed up some time after that and roped off a few blocks' radius.

And then this balloon vender showed up, because nothing says Chinese New Year like Elmo, Chicken Little and Spongebob Squarepants.

Finally, finally, finally... more [different] dancers show up around the corner and since they can use the street, they're marching on it in some sort of formation, but it's still pretty haphazard and they're not doing anything except walking. They get directed to one block where they put all their gear on the street and set up some stools and stuff. And then sit around and wait. More people keep arriving and hanging out, waiting for something to happen.

And then it finally sort of does. The kids (and all these dancers are pretty young, teenage-style) get into their costumes and they light up the eyes and do their thing. Pretty cool.

I was *on* the street - there's no sidewalk ettiquette at a Philly parade - so I was really close to where they set up, and got some up-close photos of the costumes and what they were doing.

Apparently, these things are quite expensive and are either made or the materials are brought in from China. Freakin' gorgeous, eh?

They had set up the stools in some order (and the stools got taller as you went along) so that the dancers hopped from stool to stool in succession until they were all on all the stools - and with two people per costume, it required some coordination.

Thankfully, they had spotters. It's hard to see in the dark when you're the back-end, behind somebody's ass underneath a Chinese lion costume. I'd guess. You can see how parade-watchers are quite on-top of the performers!

Mouths open and close, too. Right on.

I love this picture, because I randomly caught the 2nd person in this costume peeking out - hello! It's not like they tried to hide themselves the whole time; indeed, it was hard to conceal both as it only drapes around them, it's not a suit or something you get into. But still a cool shot, if I may say so. That green/yellow string thing she has in her mouth are earplugs, which I didn't know at the time and didn't realize why until even after I figured that out. You'll see in a minute.

The different "teams" of dancers were indeed teams; they all had matching shirts on depending on which group they were from. Here we have Suns. I learned later that most of them are martial arts student groups. Makes sense that the movements and dances are similar in style to martial art moves - graceful, animal-like. Tiger style!

When they all got up on all the stools, all the lions stood tall and there was much applause. Another peekaboo, too. And look how young that one kid is underneath the red lion on the left.

And then, just as quickly as they arranged the stools, they got off, took them away and marched out of that block and left the scene. And then nothing happened, for awhile. Again.

A couple blocks away, we find more lion costumes of another group - laid out on the street, all serene and awesome and on display. There was sort of a guy on guard who would tell people not to touch, but he was way too nice when some knucklehead came up and asked him if he could get a picture of himself INSIDE one, so the guy let some dude pick it up himself and hold it up while his idiot buddy took a couple pictures. It was painful to watch. I'm just glad the schmuck didn't drop it. It seemed very disrespectful to me.

Finally, this group came out and did their routine, and it rocked.

I've never seen so many cell-phone cameras in my life.

Dental check-up!

A very stately lion, eh? Wearing Adidas.

As you can see, at first it was just kinda one lion at a time with this group. Made me a little bummed as to the possibilities of them all dancing at the same time. One was pretty neat, but 5 or 6? If only. What good are the other costumes doing sitting on the ground? Love the blue-glowing eyes, though.

They did let two loose... and they made out. Gross. Actually, it was pretty cool. And then that was done and there was more nothing going on. So I went for another walk.

This is just one of the many buildings in Chinatown that have that sort of architectural artistry to them, where they stand out with some sort of authentic (hopefully) design on the outside, and they look great. Even better in daylight.

Finally! An actual parade! Up until this point, all we had was a few random and very separate performances in various locations. It's advertised as a parade. There was nothing central or "together" about it at all - and then somebody showed up with a banner and a flag and some sort of a parade-ness. Aww yeah. Of course, they're trying to march down the street and nobody stays on the sidewalk - everybody's out in front, trying to get a picture. Myself included (shamefully!)

These marchers brought along a dragon and did the dragon dance. Basically one big serpent puppet thingy on a bunch of sticks. The dance was very swervy and circular and slithery. Mmm-hmmm.

Pretty freakin' ornate dragon, eh?

A decent shot of their flag, whatever it says.

They didn't march that long, however, and when they stopped they got their own lion costumes out and prepared to do their dancing. I can only guess this little "parade" was just another group that happened to be larger than the others. It was pretty much just them doing their own thing.

Again, they were facing the businesses on the street and away from all of the people, which is still really odd to me given that it's a spectacle, but I found a reason for it later... And this group was pretty good at all the crazy shit.

They had another flag/banner thingy, with some dude on a horse. He looks tough. And carries a long knife! OK, sword. Whatever.

Lion bowing. The calm before the storm; sort of a zen-like, pre-chaos, meditative state. Then they get up and jam.

And they really know how to jam.

Ah, the sinister blue eyes!

OK, this next thing really freaked me out. See all that red confetti/ripped up paper on the ground? It was all attached to that street light pole, with a bunch of HUMONGOUSLY loud firecrackers. Remember those forementioned earplugs? Yeah. Also notice in this and the next picture, the green leafy lettuce-looking thing also attached to the pole. Keep reading down.

All the lions would go up to the pole with the paper/firecrackers, go a little cuckoo, do some dance, put their faces all together at the pole at the same time, and then light the firecrackers. They were painfully loud. And then they would stop (after everybody took cover or went into a bomb shelter) and all would clap and act like somebody just gave birth. It was a very happy painfully loud noise, apparently.

Some of the lions in the previous groups would go into the restaurants/businesses and look out of balconies or of windows out into the crowd. It seemed to have a purpose that was lost on me at the time. I also remember waiting for something to happen AT midnight, but absolutely nothing did. The larger "parade" section of the show was some time after 12.


My friend Erin from the Chi-town area went to a Chinese New Year celebration this year, during the day. She took some good photos, too. OK, they were awesome. One of her friends was calling the lions "dragons" and frankly I didn't know exactly what they were supposed to be until I started doing some online research. Here's what I could gather :

- There are two kinds of Chinese Lions, the Northern and Southern. The ones in Philadelphia were all Southern. Northern Lions actually look more lionly, with all four legs made for the costume and an actual mane.
- The Chinese Lion Dance goes back some one thousand years. The first record of the performance of an early form of the Lion Dance dates to the early Ch'in and Han Dynasties (Third Century BC). The lions express joy and happiness. From the fourth day to the fifteenth of the New Year, lion dance groups would tour from village to village in traditional China.
- The lion dance practiced in the United States originates from the Guangdong Province. The lion dances usually are performed by members of kung-fu schools and reflect that kung-fu style.
- For a proper lion dance, the movements must match the music played by a minimum of three pieces: drum, gong and cymbal. Either the person performing in the lion head or the drummer initiates the movement and signals the other, so that the movement and music is synchronized.
- The loud music, along with the firecrackers and lion movements, are used to scare away evil spirits so that good luck will follow with the beginning of the Lunar New Year (and grand opening of businesses, etc.)
- Payment to the performing group is usually made through the Choy Cheng, or "Eating of the Green (Vegetable)." In this country, it has come to symbolize money, the color of dollar bills. Usually, there is a lay see, a lucky red envelope with payment enclosed, which is tied to some vegetable matter such as loose leaf lettuce. Since the lay see is attached to some vegetable, it's called "choy cheng," with choy literally meaning vegetable. The greens are placed in an area for the lion to "eat." The lion will carefully approach the "green" and even test it to make sure that it is safe and not a firecracker or other dangerous item. After testing on the left and right sides, the lion will do a routine to ward off any others that may want to eat his "green."
- The lion will then pick up the green in his mouth and "chew" it. The person manipulating the head first removes the "lay see" and places it inside his shirt, so as not to drop it, which would mean bad luck. Then he will tear the lettuce apart and throw it out first to the left, then to the right and then to the middle to help spread prosperity in all directions. The music will then change to "high dance" and the head will be raised and moved as if the lion is happy to have consumed his prize.
- The lion supposedly possesses mystical properties. When paired with the five colors (yellow, black, green, red and white) as the costume is colored, it is said to have control over the five cardinal directions. The costume is composed of many symbolic shapes. The bird shaped horn represents the phoenix. The ears and tail are of the unicorn. The protruding forehead, adorned with a mirror which deflects evil forces, and the long beard are characteristic of Asian dragons. The lion walks back and forth, in a zigzag path, in order to confuse evil spirits, which the Chinese believe move in straight lines.
- Firecrackers are either by themselves or strung in a long string. They are cased in red paper, as red symbolises good things. The loud popping noise created by the explosion is thought to scare away evil spirits. Red clothing is worn throughout the Chinese New Year, as red will scare away evil spirits and bad fortune.
- Chinese astrology is the divination of the future from the Chinese calendar, particularly its 12-year cycle of animals, referred to as the Chinese Zodiac. This fortune-telling system is derived from the principle characteristics of the system: the Zodiac, the five elements of Chinese thought, calendrical cycles based on astronomy, and ancient Chinese religion.
- According to Chinese legend, the twelve animals quarreled one day as to who was to head the cycle of years. The gods were asked to decide and they held a contest: whoever was to reach the opposite bank of the river would be first, and the rest of the animals would receive their years according to their finish. All the twelve animals gathered at the river bank and jumped in. Unknown to the ox, the rat had jumped upon his back. As the ox was about to jump ashore, the rat jumped off the ox's back, and won the race. The pig, who was very lazy, ended up last. That is why the rat is the first year of the animal cycle, the ox second, and the pig last.

Sources, and more info w/pictures: