By Sophia Brown
BU News Service
BOSTON – It began a long, long time ago in China, and on Sunday the lion dance tradition continued at the Public Library of Brookline Coolidge Corner branch as part of its second annual Lunar New Year celebration. Hundreds of people of all ages crowded into the library’s atrium to watch Boston-based Gund Kwok, the only all-women lion and dragon dance troupe in the country.
Before Gund Kwok took the stage, Cheng Imm Tan, leader of the troupe, acted out an origin story of the lion dance, which mimics a lion’s movements to bring good luck and fortune in the new year. She called on the audience to help her tell the story.
Many of the children, and some of the adults eagerly shouted out answers to her questions.
“If a monster was coming tonight to your neighborhood, what would you do to drive away the foul monster?” she asked.
“Call the police!”
“Get a lion!”
As she performed the story, Tan explained that although the lion is not native to China, one was introduced through trade with the Middle East some 4,000 years ago. That lion helped villagers fight a monster known as Nian — a Chinese play on the sound of the word for “year.” With the lion’s help, the monster was defeated but returned the next year. After the lion refused to help, the villagers created lion costumes and fought off the monster themselves once and for all, beginning the lion dance tradition.
The moral of the story?
“It drives away everything bad and everything you don’t want and brings in everything good.” Tan said.
Breaking the men-only tradition
Tan said that traditionally Chinese women were barred from learning or performing the lion dance because they were not seen as strong or disciplined enough.
“We have been performing for 21 years now, and we have proved tradition wrong!” she said.
The troupe’s name means “heroine,” according to its website, and symbolizes the traditionally hidden power, strength and intelligence of women.
Pu Lei, 70, of Brookline, said she thought the dancers were “very strong.”
Reference Librarian Rhonda Mah, who was primarily in charge of organizing the event, said in an interview that Gund Kwok’s performance was especially important because of the dance’s history.
“We are very happy to partner with them and add to another level of diversity,” she said.
In an interview after the event, Tan said it’s “wonderful” to lead an all-female troupe of lion dancers and “push the boundaries.”
“Women tend to be very caring and supportive of each other, support each other to be the best they can be,” she said, adding that the response from other troupes and the public had been positive.
Darren Rosebrugh, 38, a product manager from Jamaica Plain, said he and his family hope to catch as many Chinese New Year celebrations as possible. While he was not expecting an all-female troupe of lion dancers, he said, it was a pleasant surprise.
“It was nice to learn the history and how they were changing the history,” he said, adding that this performance was the only one he has seen where the celebration included the history of the lion dance.
Meeting a need
Library staff organized the first Lunar New Year celebration last year to bring more culturally significant programming.
“We wanted to do something like that because we have such a large Asian-American population in Coolidge Corner that we thought it was kind of a need that wasn’t necessarily being met,” said Ryan Brennan, supervisor of the Coolidge Corner branch.
Last year, over 300 people attended the event, organizers said, and about 400 came Sunday. The celebration this year also included a calligraphy demonstration and traditional Chinese new year’s refreshments including clementines and red envelopes with chocolate gold coins.
Joe Yeh, 45, an engineer living in Brookline, said he and his wife brought their family to show their kids some heritage and have a good time. He said he appreciated how Cheng explained the history of the dance and thought the troupe put on a good show.
“It takes a lot of initiative, and what they’re doing is really great,” he said.
Beverly Chang, 83, of Brookline, said she came because she celebrated the Lunar New Year with her late husband for many years.
“Today it was a special treat because of the women,” she said. “I’ve seen performances before, but they were exceptional, lively, light on their feet — it was one beautiful show.”
This article was previously published in the Brookline Tab.