It all started when I joined the martial arts school when I was a teenager — this was back in the early 1970s. My teacher really pushed me to learn the lion dance because back at that time, having non-Asian and non-Chinese people performing the lion dance — people didn’t accept that. I was one of the few Chinese that was in his martial arts school. So every time someone hired him to do a lion dance, I would be the one who was playing the lion. I really didn’t enjoy it. I just did it because my teacher needed me to do it.
A lot of the younger people don’t understand what the ritual is about. To them it’s kind of like a festival or a party. They have an Asian-theme event, and they call these guys with these costumes, and to them that’s, “We’re celebrating culture.” But some of the older people, the traditional community, they really know what it’s about. The lion dance is a ritual dance developed in China over 1,000 years ago. The dance is used to drive away evil spirits. The Chinese believe that negative energy or evil spirits get in the way of good luck. And so to get good luck you have to drive away the evil spirits with the lion dance.
You can get 10 people performing the same moves, who learn the same way, and all 10 people will look different under [the costume]. The way the lion looks depends on your body structure, your age, the way you move and your emotion, because when you perform, you become part of the costume, or rather the costume becomes part of you.
The movements are based on kung fu techniques. They’re in harmony with the alignment of the energy of the earth. For Chinese who live by the principles of balance, this comes from Taoism — it’s a way of thinking. They believe in positive and negative balance. For those who still honor these beliefs and live by them, they want a lion dance that operates by these principles. So in order to do the lion dance properly, you have to train in kung fu. Kung fu is 10 years of study. Nobody wants to do that. So they just put on a costume and just fake it.
I guess you can call it spiritual maintenance. So if you open up a restaurant and you’re spending half a million dollars getting it going, you need to cover all of your bases. It doesn’t matter how good a location you have, how well you plan things, how pretty your restaurant is, how good your employees are — if you have bad vibes in the place, you might run into bad luck. And if there is such a thing as evil spirits or bad luck, you need to check that out and get rid of it.