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Saturday, Feb. 24, 2007 | Hoisting a 25-pound lion costume above your head and dancing to scare off evil spirits isn’t a job for the weak-hearted — or weak-armed. And Joe Wong, one of San Diego’s chief lion dancers, knows that better than maybe anyone in the city. He’s been performing the commemorative dance for Lunar New Year for four decades, since growing up in downtown San Diego.

Lasting for 15 days from the first new moon phase of the year, Lunar New Year is celebrated around the world among Chinese and many other Asian cultures. This year, the festivities began Feb. 18 to end the Year of the Dog and usher in the Year of the Boar. Each year in the Chinese calendar is marked by one of 12 animals, a system which embodies a circular concept of time rather than the linear concept associated with Western culture.

Wong and his troupe performed the traditional dance to welcome the new year — the Year of the Boar — at the local Asian Business Association’s Lunar New Year celebration at Fat City Steakhouse downtown earlier this month.

Wong and Joni Low, director of the association, sat down with voiceofsandiego.org for a few minutes before the dinner to describe what’s involved in the Lunar New Year festivities and the strength of Asian culture represented in San Diego.

Describe the Lunar New Year celebration.

JW: OK, well, our part of it is a lucky lion dance, which, the story behind it is, we scare off — the lucky lion scares off — evil spirits with some loud noise. In China, we use firecrackers, but over here, because of permits and liability issues, we don’t use firecrackers.

JL: We used to, years ago, but we just don’t have the insurance.

JW: So, the main idea is just to bring good luck and scare off the evil spirits.

Is there a story to the dance at all?

JW: Yeah, if you watch different parts of it, we always start with bows. The lucky lion will come in and he’ll bow three times to let the business or the homeowner know that we’re here and then the lion will prance around again. And the purpose of that is to scare off the evil spirits and all of that. The lion will then eat — like lettuce, or some type of green thing, which represents money — and throw it up into the air and spread it out to the crowd and bring luck. And, then, let’s see — the lucky lion will pretty much finish with three bows and always backs up out. If we’re inside a building, we leave the building by backing out. That’s to show respect for the homeowner or business owner.

How far does lion dancing trace back?

JW: Oh, I don’t know — many thousands of years.

How many times a year do you do lion dances?

JW: It’s predominantly New Year’s — that’s when we’re busiest. So the month of February and the first two weeks of March. The rest of the year, we do corporate events — weddings, birthdays, bar mitzvahs.

How many people are involved in the lion dance?

JW: We have one head person, one tail. We will switch off because it gets very tiring. We have — let’s see — a drum player, a gong player, cymbal player, on the musical instruments.

Do they punctuate different parts in the ceremony with the music? As you’re bowing, as you’re getting rid of the evil spirits, does the music change?

JW: The music follows that, yeah.

So, in the actual costume, there’s just two people?

JW: Yeah, and we will switch off.

In the middle of a dance?

JW: Oh yeah.

What gets tiring about it? How heavy is the costume?

JW: Well, the head is about 25 pounds. It’s not that heavy, but what makes it heavy is that it’s not well-balanced. We’re constantly dealing with the balance issues. It’s very front-heavy.

Do you have any stories of tripping or anything?

(Laughing) JW: Well, we try to avoid that. Well, let’s see — many years ago, when firecrackers were allowed and more prevalent in the businesses, many of the business owners would think it was fun to throw packets of firecrackers at the lion and watch us jump. So, that was interesting. …

When I started, it was primarily around the Gaslamp area, and we would go see little restaurants, laundries, businesses. And we’d just do the same dance, over and over again.

JL: So they’d give you the lettuce …

JW: Yeah, they’d give us the lettuce and the lucky money at every stop. And they thought it was very lucky to, you know, feed us and give us beverages. And so, oftentimes, we’d have our fill of sodas and drinks and, you know.

JL: Food is always associated with the Lunar New Year. Lots of food.

Anything specific, traditionally?

JL: When I grew up, my grandma always made spicy noodles but I don’t know the English name for them.

JW: Like dumplings, I guess.

JL: There are special dishes that are only made at Chinese New Year. And we have a huge New Year’s meal. Usually set out the oranges for good luck.

What kind of training is required for lion dancing?

JW: Well, we’re pretty much on-the-job training. It’s not like in China, where they’re a part of a kung fu school and they start young and work their way up and only the masters can do the lucky lion dance.

But here …

JW: Oh, we’ll take anybody. We’ll even take you if you’ll join. … Around December, we have a few meetings where we invite new people or tell people to bring their friends, but a lot of it is on-the-job. As we go through each performance, they learn how to do the performance.

Are all of the people who are in the lion dancers group Chinese?

JW: No, no. We have some Japanese, Vietnamese, mixed Asian, Chinese, Korean. Even girls, women.

The lion dance is a specifically Chinese tradition, but the ABA (Asian Business Association) represents countries besides China, right? What would you say the make-up of the celebration tonight will be?

JL: We’ll have a good share of Caucasian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Korean — we really are kind of all-encompassing. We’ve got a lot of corporate members, so, you know, with their memberships, they could have 10 or 20 staff here. And we’ll have … the mayor and Supervisor Ron Roberts presenting a proclamation that’s going to be just before they start the lion dance.

Would you say that Asian-American culture in San Diego is pretty strong?

JL: I think about 12 percent of the population in the county is Asian. And I think that the groups with the higher percentages of individuals would be Vietnamese and Filipino. So our organization has first-generation (American), and like I’m third-generation. So I think it really varies. But there’s a lot of first-generation, particularly from the universities and such.

Did you both grow up in San Diego?JW: I did; I’m one of the few that was born and raised here. … I work for the city of San Diego; I’m a safety officer. Like occupational safety.

JL: I was raised in Portland.

JL (to Joe): Well, (earlier), you said that — haven’t you been [lion dancing] for 40 years?

JW: Well, ’cause I grew up in the Gaslamp, as a little kid … and that was kind of the Chinatown. Kind of, very small.

Who are the people you’ll be working with today; have they been doing it as long as you have?

JW: Probably not, no. I’m the oldest guy there, unfortunately. … Today (at the dinner) we’ll probably have about 10 to 12 people.

Are you a club that accepts dues or something? How do you [raise support]?

JW: (Laughs) No, no. We need people. You’re even invited — if you want to join, we’ll take you. We don’t turn down anybody.

— Interview by KELLY BENNETT

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