For the past 25 years or so, the Chinese Association of Saipan would usher in the Lunar New Year by performing traditional lion dances in various establishments around the island.
Association director Rose Chan said the traditional lion dance—and for that matter the traditional dragon dance—are performed to ward off evil spirits as the Chinese welcome the New Year.
Aside from the lion and dragon dances with their loud rhythmic drumming, the lighting of firecrackers is also important during Lunar New Year, as its earsplitting sound is one sure way to ward off evil spirits.
Chan said the cabbage and springs onions used in the traditional lion and dragon dances symbolize money.
“Cabbage in Chinese sounds the same as the Chinese word for money. Cabbage in Chinese is chi, that is the same Chinese word for money. If the lion eats the money or cabbage, it will bring a lot of good luck to the family or the business,” she said.
Inherited from dad
Chan inherited from her father the organizing of the annual traditional lion dances on Saipan. Her family runs the Canton Restaurant along Beach Road in Garapan.
“Dad used to organize this but after he died I took over.”
She said the performers of the traditional lion and dragon dances are all volunteers, clarifying that they only perform the former in Lunar New Year because they need as much as 50 people to operate the dragon.
Even the lion dance could be labor extensive, as she needs from 10 to 16 people to operate the two lions that perform every Lunar New Year.
While it only needs two persons to operate the lion—one literally wearing the head and the other holding the tail—the movements are so fast and physically exhausting that the pair needs to be substituted every five or so minutes.
The traditional dragon dance, meanwhile is only performed for very special occasions and at bigger venues like during the 4th of July celebrations.
The props also don’t come cheap. Chan said one lion costs between $1,000 and $2,000 and are imported from China. The dragon is more expensive and can run up to as much as $4,000.
High of 32
In today’s Lunar New Year, the Chinese Association of Saipan is booked to perform the traditional lion dance at 20 sites.
They will start out at their own building in China Town, followed by the TSL Plaza (8:30am), Century Hotel (9am), Hyatt Regency Saipan (11am), NIC Health, 9922 (11:30am), Canton Restaurant (12pm), Majesty Restaurant (12:30pm), Louis Vuitton (12:50pm), Kanoa Resort and Century Tours (2pm), Subway (3pm), Fiesta Resort & Spa Saipan (4pm), Micro Beach Hotel and Dollar Days (5pm), Hyatt Regency Saipan (6:30pm), I Love Saipan (7pm), and Duty Free Saipan (8pm).
“Last year it was 29. The largest number was 32 when Saipan still had garment factories. We went to all garment factories. We started over 25 years ago when there were already a lot of garment factories on the island. Most of my dancers used to work in garment factories. They stayed and now work in various capacities on island as construction workers, gardeners, to farmers. Some also work at trading companies,” said Chan.
The Chinese Association of Saipan actually accepts donations for their lion and dragon dance routines, which range in price from $280 to $580 that they donate to their school, located inside their building in China Town.
While the performers are not paid, Chan said they get to keep their brand new lion dance uniforms and shoes every year, adding that all of them are always happy to volunteer because they are proud of their culture and performing the lion dance is their way of keeping the tradition alive.
Huang Hong, who is the drummer and the de facto leader of the group, said he has been performing in lion dances since he was 14 years old in Toyshan, China.
The 57-year-old has been working on Saipan since 1997 and has been performing lion dances since 1998.
Huang and company only start practicing two or three weeks before the Lunar New Year and they usually do it three times a week after work hours.
Chan is inviting the local community and even tourists to join their traditional lion dance performances today.
“Please watch our lion dance performances today because they bring good luck and good health to everyone. It’s good enjoyment and a good atmosphere for Chinese New Year. I also wish everybody good luck. The Year of the Wooden Horse means doing something fast and successful. I wish everybody good health and more money.”