Chinese Americans Embrace “Cultural Time Capsule” to Celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival

When he got his first lion head at the age of eight, Ricky Chen didn’t know much about the lion dance. The handmade gift from his grandfather sparked Chen’s interest in this traditional form of celebration in Chinese culture, and Chen started to join lion dance groups.

“The drawings, the way it looks, the design, the colors… it was unique,” said Chen, now 23, a leading member of the New York United Lion & Dragon Dance Troupe. In his furry lion dance costume, Chen was preparing to perform at the 7th Annual Brooklyn Autumn Moon Festival on Sunday, Sept. 23.

To celebrate the upcoming Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, more than 400 Chinese residents in Sunset Park, Brooklyn gathered at the courtyard of Golden Imperial Palace, a Chinese restaurant and headquarters for several Chinese American associations — among which are the hosts of the event, American Chinese Commerce Association (Hong Kong) and Brooklyn Asian Community Empowerment (BRACE).

“This is really sort of like the Thanksgiving that we celebrate in my family,” said Justin Brannan, a New York City council member who was born and raised in Brooklyn, at the ceremony. Also attending the ceremony was William Colton, a New York State assembly member, who echoed the festival’s vibe and said, “I’m so happy to see so many of our children here, because that means they are learning the traditions that keep us all strong.”

The opening remarks were followed by a table lion dance. Chen and his partner worked together as one lion to climb upon the high tables as if the lion was climbing the obstacles to harvest the flower on the mountain top, accompanied by the deafening gong-and-drum percussion ensemble.

“You can focus on the lion’s expression. It’s like ‘Oh, how should I get up there,’ ‘Is there any enemy?’” said Emily Zheng, 23, a core member of Chen’s lion dance group. “The arts of it is not just wiggling around; you have to bring emotion, bring it to life. All of the movements count to the story.”

Chen and Zheng have stayed in the current lion dance group for 10 years, and they have witnessed that the number of people performing lion dance have dramatically decreased. When they first started, the group had 30 dedicated members; now they only have 12.

“We are losing the generation. No one wants to practice the lion dance. They just like to see it,” said Chen, who wants more 14- or 15-year-olds to take the next torch. “I want people to think this as a sport, like basketball or video games.”

Sumie Okazaki, a professor of applied psychology at NYU Steinhardt, with extensive research experience on the impact of immigration on Asian and Asian American community, referred to events like Sunday’s festival as “cultural time capsule”.

The term is used to describe the phenomenon that the generation that immigrated from Asia are continuing to practice the traditional cultural activities that they grew up with in Asia and it becomes a shared communal practice that is frozen in time, whereas contemporary Asian societies have modernized and changed in the meantime and those “traditional” practices become outdated in Asia, Okazaki wrote in an email.

Carrying out those cultural practices among Asian American communities, like Chen and Zheng’s years of experience performing lion dance, could contribute to a recent finding by Yoonsun Choi, a professor at University of Chicago, according to Okazaki.

By analyzing the collected data from the Korean community, Choi learned that “Korean American youth in Chicago hold higher ‘traditional’ Korean values than Korean youth in Korea,” mentioned by Okazaki in an email.

“Immigrant parents may try to expose their kids to traditional Asian activities as a way to boost their children’s ethnic and cultural pride and connection to heritage, partly as a protection against racism and marginalization within the US context,” Okazaki explained.

Shufang Zheng, an immigrant from Fuzhou, China, brought her six-year-old daughter to Sunday’s venue, and said she wanted her daughter to know more about Chinese holidays. “Otherwise, they ABCs (American Born Chinese) have no knowledge of their own heritage,” said Zheng, while hesitant to get her daughter into lion dance. “Lion dance may not be suitable for girls. How can a girl perform as a lion? They can only play the drums backstage.”

But Chen wants to call on younger generations, no matter the gender, to take part in the lion dance performance. “Join the family. Join the family we have formed together. We make people smile together. Be united as one. Yeah, that’s it. Try it out.”