Lions Dance, & “Sisters” Toast

Thomas Breen photoSaturday began with a colorful parade through downtown marking the Chinese New Year and was capped with a toast to New Haven’s budding relationship with its Chinese soon-to-be sister city of Changsha — a beacon of people-to-people diplomacy at a time of uncertain government relations.

This attitude of national uncertainty and local enthusiasm was one of the defining sentiments of a formal reception held on the second floor of Yale’s Woolsey Hall on Saturday night that celebrated New Haven’s plan to establish its formal relationship with Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province in central China.

The event was one of the capstones of Lunarfest 2017, New Haven’s annual Chinese New Year festival, which features a variety of activities around the city and Yale’s campus that celebrate Chinese history and culture.

David Youtz, executive director of the Yale-China Association, presided over the evening event, which brought together a few dozen New Haveners, Yale faculty and staff, and Chinese nationals all eager to usher in a new chapter of cultural, economic, and educational exchange with a city that New Haven has been involved with for well over a century.

Mayor Toni Harp, Chinese Consul General of New York Zhang Qiyue, Yale anesthesiologist and Changsha native Gary Zhou, and Yale p{resident Peter Salovey all spoke with pride about how in 1906, Yale in China (now called the Yale-China Association) helped found a high school and a nursing school in Changsha.

Today, that high school, called “Yali,” is ranked as one of the top five in the country, and the nursing school has blossomed into three major teaching hospitals that instruct several thousands of students each year.

Since then, the Yale-China Association has helped encourage a closer relationship between the two cities through such initiatives as the establishment of a long-standing student exchange program between the Foote School and Changsha’s Yali, as well as through its support of a program that has brought teachers from Changsha over for temporary instructor assignments at John C. Daniels School and the Edgewood School.

“We are proud this year that our latest project is to help connect in a more official way the cities of Changsha and New Haven,” Youtz said, alluding to his goal of bringing the new mayor of Changsha to visit New Haven sometime in 2017. The sister city relationship cannot be officially completed until the mayors of each city meet in the same place.

“Surely this is the most important and appropriate time for cities and individual citizens to come together. I think perhaps the antidote to the chaos we’re seeing at the national level is what all of us are doing here: building citizen-to-citizen bridges. As we look forward to the Year of the Rooster and the 21st century more broadly, I’m convinced that more and more of the important work in this world is going to happen at local levels: city to city, state to state, people to people.”

One of the ideas that Youtz and New Haven Culture Czar Andy Wolf have for building those bridges between the two sister cities is through the setting up of a New Haven-based café in one of Changsha’s teaching hospitals.

The café would be founded and designed by a current New Haven restaurateur (whom Wolf did not name because the project has not yet been finalized). It would feature on its walls artworks from New Haven artists, as sent over by Audubon Street’s Silk Road Gallery. Wolf said that he hopes to have the details ironed out and the café open for business in Changsha within the next six months.

A Lion Dance on Whitney Avenue

Earlier in the day, New Haven experienced the energy and vibrancy of such international cultural exchange during the opening ceremony of Lunarfest 2017, which filled two blocks of Whitney Avenue with a festival of Chinese arts and culture.

Nicholas Ling scaled to the top of a 20-foot red pole outside of Great Wall on Whitney Avenue and waited for an offering of lettuce. Dressed in an ornate lion costume made of papier-mâché, bamboo, and layers upon layers of cloth trimmed with fur, Ling reached through the flapping mouth of the lion’s head to pick the greens that were dangling before him.

A 23-year-old Staten Island native who acts as the lion’s head in the Wan Chi Ming Hung Gar Institute’s Lion Dance team, Ling was visiting New Haven with his fellow performers on Saturday morning to help the city kick off Lunarfest 2017, an annual celebration of the Chinese New Year. Well over 100 New Haveners attended the opening ceremony, which took place between 10 and 11:30 a.m. on Whitney Avenue between Grove Street and Trumbull Street.

Now in its 6th year, Lunarfest, which is organized by the Council of East Asian Studies at Yale, the New Haven Museum, and the Yale-China Association, packs a day’s worth of celebrations of Chinese history and culture into various venues around Yale and downtown New Haven. The New Haven Museum hosted a martial arts demonstration, Luce Hall hosted a theater workshop, and the Yale-China Association opened its doors to display a Yale-China History exhibit.

But the centerpiece of the day’s festivities was the opening ceremony, which featured a two-block parade up Whitney Avenue led by the New York City-based lion dance team.

The parade started at 10 a.m. at the corner of Grove Street and Whitney Avenue. Students and staff from the Yale-China Association flanked the sidewalks with red balloons and baskets of Chinese chocolates.

Mayor Toni Harp, Yale-China Association Executive Director David Youtz, and Chinese Consul General Zhang Qiyue helped carry a new year’s banner up Whitney Avenue, while the lion dancers skirted their way back and forth across the street, fluttering their puppets’ heavy eyelids and accepting cash donations that had been tucked away in gilt red envelopes by New Haveners hoping for a lucky Year of the Fire Rooster.

When the parade reached Audubon Street, a diverse array of Connecticut artists, dancers, and musicians took turns presenting their carefully prepared performances in celebration of Chinese culture.

The Connecticut Yankee Chorus sang a Barbershop-rendition of several Chinese folk songs, including “Rainbow Sister.”

The ECA Repertory Dance Company offered a three-woman performance synchronized to the sounds of a methodical, two-drum rhythm.

Three students at the Wu Dang Kung Fu Academy in Orange, Connecticut displayed their martial arts skills and acrobatics, which included feats of air-born swordplay.

And Yale’s C Sharp Acapella Group crooned a few melodious Chinese pop songs before the lion dance team resumed their vibrant parade up Whitney Avenue.

With the drums and cymbals of the walking percussion section galvanizing each of the lions’ many complex head and body movements, the parade wound its way to Great Wall and Hong Kong Market, where the lion performers entered the businesses to spread some luck and good cheer to the eager owners and customers.

The culmination of the parade was the Cai Qing, or “Picking the Green”: one of the most important sections of the Chinese New Year lion dance, and the one that brought Ling confidently if precariously to the top of that 20-foot pole.

The Cai Qing is the climax of the lion dance performance, and sees the puppet lion accept, tear up, and disperse a leafy vegetable offering presented by a local merchant. With the scattering of the leafy green across the sidewalk and street outside of the shop in question, the lion symbolically issues a new year’s blessing of abundance and prosperity to the merchant as well as to the community in which he works.

As the chief dancer ascended, the percussionists behind him slowed their rhythm to an anticipatory drum roll. Ling carefully shredded the lettuce beneath the costume while maintaining his balance. And then, with a great explosion of cymbals and applause, Ling threw the tattered greens on the street below, much to the delight of the hundred-plus New Haveners who had gathered to marvel at the acrobatic feat.

The Year of the Rooster, which in Chinese sounds the same as the word for “good luck,” was off to an auspicious and delightful start.

 

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