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Vol. 14, no. 3
June / July 2011


Waking the Lion 
Story by George Tanabe
Photos by Monte Costa

Wah Ngai dancers at the Chinese New Year celebration at Honolulu's Chinese Cultural Plaza.

The Chinese New Year parade crawls
along the narrow confines of Honolulu’s Hotel Street. Spectators are out in force, jamming the sidewalks, and marchers in the parade stop often to let the line stretch out as they funnel through the crowd. Occasionally a dancing lion or two appears in the passing throng. Everyone in the parade is well behaved, sedate even, and the people watching take advantage of the slow pace to dip in and out of the side streets and snack on grilled chicken and beef. Smoky scents of soy sauce, garlic and ginger fill the air.


But as the end of the line moves up, the energy changes. There is a burst of fast drumming, mixed with clashing cymbals and earsplitting gongs. A whole pride of dancing lions appears on the street. The beasts—no less than fifteen, of all different colors and sizes—weave, bob, snap their mouths, sniff the ground, rear up. They never rest, even when the parade line stops. They charge the air with their vitality. They are the lions of the Wah Ngai Lion Dance Association, and the crowd loves them: laughing, snapping pictures, running forward to offer money.


The energy continues later that night when a single Wah Ngai lion performs on the open-air stage of the Chinese Cultural Plaza. The place is packed with people eager to see the lion not just dance but jump. The lion cautiously approaches the mountain where the flower of immortality grows; the mountain is represented by twenty steel tubes ranging in height from four to eight feet. The poles are topped by small discs a foot in diameter, barely large enough for the lion’s dancing feet. The question hangs in the air: How can the lion—which everyone in the crowd knows is really two men—possibly jump onto poles that high?


The crowd quiets as the drums, gongs and cymbals hammer out a cadence meant to symbolize the beating of the lion’s heart. The crouching animal jumps to its feet and sways from side to side as it eyes the poles, and the cadence of the music grows faster. A swift movement, and the front half of the lion is up. People ooh and aah. The front half jumps to the next pair of poles as the tail end leaps up to the first poles: The entire lion is now standing on the mountain. The crowd applauds and cheers. The lion dances its way up, jumping, spinning, standing on its hind legs, falling forward, sitting and scratching itself, all to the delight of the crowd. At the summit it takes the flower of immortality into its mouth—and then spits it out, disgusted by its taste. The lion makes its way down the mountain continuing its acrobatics and dismounts with a tail-over-head flip.