Still vivid in Corey Chan's memory are the images of him as an 8-year-old boy growing up in San Francisco's Chinatown. During Chinese New Year he would run out of his grandparents' camera shop and down Grant Avenue, following the lion dancers who so mesmerized him.
"All the colors. All these marvelous feats that the performers accomplished. The music that they played -- all were drilled into my head," he says. "I smelled the firecracker smoke and the incense, and it just got me. I just wanted to be that when I grew up. I wanted to lion dance."
A few years later Chan began his martial arts practice. At the age of 18 he met Wilson Ng, who became his first martial arts master. Under Ng, Chan began training in earnest and has been performing with, and then directing, Kei Lun Martial Arts for more than three decades.
There are several lion dance troupes in the Bay Area. Some focus on acrobatics. But what sets Kei Lun apart, according to Chan, is the group's dedication to passing on ancient Chinese stories, told through the art of lion dance. "You can't just look at a lion dance the first time and understand exactly how deep it is," Chan says. "It's an ongoing learning process that reveals itself layer by layer."
One such story (scenes from which are shown in the accompanying video) is about a little boy, Wang Xiang. When his mother becomes ill and needs food, he goes to the lake to fish. Finding the lake frozen, Wang Xiang takes off his clothes and lies down on the ice, trying to use his body warmth to melt it. When that doesn't work, Wang Xiang starts crying. Heaven takes pity on him and sends a dragon, whose warm breath melts the ice. Chan says Wang Xiang's actions help remind all Chinese people about the virtues of filial piety.
In the traditional lion dance, props are used that represent different meanings. For example lettuce and tangerines, which are often hung for lion dancers to pluck (along with cash), represent prosperity; tangerines with stems represent the unity of the family. The props help tell the tale and present a puzzle the lion must solve for the dance to be successful. "The audience struggles with the lion," says Chan. "Sometimes the lion looks so frustrated because it can't do what it wants to do." But his triumph, when it comes, is all the sweeter for the obstacles.
Chan is so committed to passing on these stories that in 2009 he began compiling old notes and his translations of traditional lion dance puzzles. "Every discovery led to new mysteries," he says. "And the discoveries have inspired our team to perform some never-before-seen material in this country that had been lost for generations." He hopes to eventually write a book. "It's vital that we do not lose these stories, because most ... have never been translated."
Though the dragon dance is more festive and less layered in meaning than the lion dance, the dragon has great significance in Chinese culture as well. "The dragon is the ultimate symbol of the Chinese people, who call themselves the descendants of the dragon," Chan explains. "The ancients believed different dragons controlled rainfall and flooding; they brought life-giving rain to the crops which sustained a nation, or they caused the catastrophic floods that wiped out millions. No wonder dragons were considered the loftiest, most powerful and most fearsome of creatures."
To make their art as culturally authentic as possible, Chan and other members of the Kei Lun team traveled to China to learn how to make lion and dragon heads from the masters there. "There are fewer and fewer real masters of the art," Chan laments. "Not too many people want to learn this because it's an art that doesn't pay a lot of money. The people who do it, do it for love."
Chan reflects back to those boyhood days watching the lion dancers in his neighborhood and says he realizes that sometimes "the art chooses the person." He says that's how it was for him. He says he persists for his kids, so they'll see his commitment to preserving something valuable. And for the joy that his troupe brings to audiences. And for the stories.
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and
Flora Hewlett Foundation. Support is also provided by the members of KQED.