Sunday, January 25, 2009
In the midst of hundreds gathered in San Francisco's Portsmouth Square on Saturday morning, a Taoist priest used red dye to dab the eyes, ears, nostrils and mouth of Gum Lung, the golden dragon.
Within moments, the 238-foot dragon twirled, soared and zigzagged through the often narrow streets of one of the nation's most historic and largest Chinese enclaves.
Awakened with the red dye that symbolizes blood, the dragon comes to life two weeks a year as Chinatown celebrates the Lunar New Year, which begins Monday and is observed in much of the East Asian world.
Gum Lung is the unquestioned star for the fortnight of festivities, embodying thousands of years of tradition and attracting a legion of local volunteers who carry it during the annual Chinese New Year Parade.
"It's always good luck and prosperity when the dragon comes around," said Frank Ung, 57. As dragon master for the parade, he has overseen the creature's care for 35 years.
Monday marks the beginning of the Year of the Ox. People born in that year are dependable, patient and methodical. They do not back down in the face of obstacles. President Obama is an ox.
Gum Lung (pronounced "goom loong") has a skeleton of bamboo and is connected by rope. Linen, paper, rabbit fur and decorative disks serve as the dragon's sinewy skin. Hundreds of LED and compact fluorescent bulbs vein the body, allowing Gum Lung to glow during the parade the creature will highlight on Feb. 7. For the first time, the dragon will lead rather than end the procession.
Wear and tear render Gum Lung unusable after several years. This year's dragon was made in Hong Kong and brought to San Francisco three weeks ago. It is the longest in the parade's history, which is believed to date back to at least the 1860s.
Weighing an estimated half-ton, Gum Lung is carried and escorted by some 100 volunteers, not including the drummers, stilt walkers and lion dancers who walk in its wake. As the dragon careened down the hilly streets of Chinatown on Saturday, small children and the elderly were left equally awestruck.
"It's cool how that many people can synchronize it," said Megan Van Hoorebeke, 27, of Petaluma. "It's this big bulky creature, and they move it so fluidly."
Tradition attracts many
The long tradition of Chinese New Year celebrations in Chinatown always has drawn many non-Chinese.
Mark Langley's grandfather was an Italian American living in North Beach, but he worked alongside Chinese Americans and often shopped in Chinatown. Langley grew up in the Mission District and remembers coming to his first Lunar New Year celebration in 1968.
The memories of storefront neon lights mixed with incense and patchouli-wearing hippies are still vivid to him. Every year, to mark the past and present, Langley hosts a dinner in Chinatown for 30 friends.
"Chinatown was a magic place, and the parade just made it more so," said Langley, 52, who lives in Concord, one of the many who run while holding up Gum Lung.
The mythology of the dragon is central to Chinese culture, and one of the highest forms of divinity in polytheistic Taoism. It is the most desired birth year in the 12-year cycle of the Chinese horoscope, and is the only mythological creature. With horns of a stag, claws of an eagle, scales of a fish, whiskers of a cat and a body like a serpent, the Chinese dragon embodies many creatures.
Unlike European concepts of dragons, which portray the creatures as evil and destructive, the dragon in Chinese lore is benevolent. It brings luck, longevity and prosperity. The longer the dragon - and San Francisco's Gum Lung is believed to be the largest outside Asia - the more luck it's supposed to bring.
"Everyone is happy to see the dragon," said Jefferson Lee, a head priest with the Ching Chung Taoist Association of America, who awakened Gum Lung on Saturday morning. Lee and several others said traditional belief holds that all Chinese are "children of the dragon."
Prayers to the dragon are also believed to bring rain.
"Hopefully, the blessing of the dragon will bring us some water," said Lee, referring to the fact that California is facing a third straight dry winter.
Gum Lung is a just a visual symbol. But Lee said Taoist belief holds that meditation can bring dragon energy into your life.
Several involved in the Chinatown Lunar New Year celebration saw particular significance in this year's dragon that went beyond the religious. The Rev. Norman Fong, master of ceremonies at the parade since 1991, sees the dragon as a marker of how far Chinese Americans have come in the city.
The community has been in San Francisco since at least 1849, but the slights and hurdles have been many. In the early part of the century, many immigrants including Fong's father were imprisoned on Angel Island and interrogated for months before finally being released. Now, there are three Chinese Americans on the Board of Supervisors and, for the first time, a Chinese American president of the board, David Chiu.
Just as stereotypes led Euro-centric beliefs to fear dragons, Fong said it has taken time to come to understand that Chinese-Americans are not to be feared. Fong said the fact that non-Chinese now celebrate the dragon embodies that change.
"Finally, we have some respect," said Fong, 57, who grew up in Chinatown and who was born in a dragon year. "In many ways, the Chinese have persevered through the years. We've come to a time where the Chinese New Year's events are finally understood and appreciated."
For more photos and video of the Chinese New Year Parade's dragon eye-dotting ceremony, go to sfgate.com.
For more information
-- To learn more about Lunar New Year festivities in San Francisco, visit www.chineseparade.com.
-- Other celebrations include one today at the Oakland Museum of California, www.museumca.org, and Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 at Mills High School in Millbrae.
-- Gum Lung will be on display this week on the lobby level of One Embarcadero Center.
E-mail Matthai Kuruvila at email@example.com.
This article appeared on page B - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle