HAPPY NEW YEAR CHINESE STYLE

January 30, 2004 11:00 pm
Jester Jon Loren plays fetch with Mandarin lion (Jeff Beebe and Bill Franks), the newest of the pride. ().
Jester Jon Loren plays fetch with Mandarin lion (Jeff Beebe and Bill Franks), the newest of the pride. ().

Pilot story and photos

by Lynn Davis

Hundreds of spectators gathered outside Lee's Dragon Gate restaurant Saturday to observe the ninth annual lion dance and martial arts performance and demonstration presented by The Club Center-Northern Tai Chi Tum Pai Gung-Fu Association.

The event, laden with ceremony and superstition, welcomes in the Chinese New Year.

In between lion dances, the audience was treated to student skill demonstrations, which included various forms of Tai Chi and Gung Fu. Together, these activities have been used for centuries to show the power of the community to fight real and imaginary foes and chase evil spirits away for the new year.

As a festive conclusion to the event, performers, family members and friends were treated by the Lees to a buffet luncheon made up of specialty dishes such as calamari, duck and chicken that took days to prepare.

The Chinese New Year has been celebrated for almost 2000 years. The Chinese calendar is based on a combination of lunar and solar movements. This year is referred to as Chinese Lunar Year 4701. It is a time for new beginnings; an opportunity to get one's life in order, settle all debts, and pay homage to family, friends and co-workers.

Each year is characterized by an animal symbol which rotates and makes an appearance every 12 years. This year, 2004 is the Year of the Monkey. If born in the Year of the Monkey, one is said to be active, social, sympathetic, trustworthy, and intelligent, among other things.

The lion dance ceremony marked the beginning of the celebration of the New Year. It began with loud drums and firecrackers waking up the animals, and a jester provoking them to rise. A festive dance of progressive energy ensued, combining the skill of the performers with a lighthearted, celebratory mood that is culminated with lions taking heads of lettuce placed by George and Letty Lee, owners of Lee's Dragon Gate restaurant.

Superstition has always played a big part in Chinese culture. Saturday's celebration encompassed several of the actions and ideas believed to be essential to the future, including the feeding of the lions. The lettuce bouquets topped with oranges was hung up high around the front of the Lee's establishment for the lions to enjoy.

Inside the bouquets, the lions found envelopes of money to be used toward the martial arts school's expenses. This is a traditional custom that is meant to show appreciation to the school, good will, and generosity on behalf of the business. In turn, the business is expected to prosper and have good luck throughout the year.

After taking their share of the lettuce, the lions then shared the bounty with the audience. Leaves were ceremoniously thrown in different directions, showing the generosity of the lions.

Finally, the lions settled down in slumber to prepare for the next year's festivities.

After the introductory lions were laid to rest, martial artists demonstrated technical and spiritual aspects of gung-fu and tai chi. Performers ranged in age from 6 to older than 70.

"We try to do a different demonstration every year using different kinds of weaponry, tai chi forms, in addition to the lion dancing," explained Jon Loren, martial arts instructor, and owner of The Herb Shop-Tum Pai Herbs and The Club Center. "We try to show both the strength and the fun."

Providing a hilarious grand finale to the event was a new yellow and orange Mandarin lion. The lion acted together with a Jester, resembling the funny antics of a playful puppy and his master.

Loren currently has 11 lions. With the great success of the Mandarin lion's debut in mind, he is seriously considering adding an extraordinary, but expensive white lion he has had his eyes on for years.

Lions are symbols reserved specifically to represent martial arts schools. Students use different sets of lions for each occasion. The image of the lion embodies the characteristics the community needs in their school – strong, protective, and dominant. The school has got to show power. The more powerful the school, the more powerful the community.

"Martial arts teaches discipline, respect, and control," Loren said. "It gives students the ability to defend their families and themselves. The teachings are truly endless."

Loren explained that learning martial arts is not a team sport like basketball or football. "We do not compete," he said, "we train together."

Training is personal to each student, although they occasionally combine their talents with others to become part of a group performance, such as in a lion dance. Loren believes children, especially those who have deep scars and damaged self-esteem from trying to fit into traditional sports, can benefit greatly from martial arts.

For many years, while Loren was teaching martial arts in Washington, principals of area schools would often refer children who were making bad choices, getting into trouble, to him for a sort of boot camp experience.

Lessons learned there were hard fought, but once students graduated, Loren said, most had successfully acquired invaluable tools that gave them a strong foundation for a respectful, productive life.

"Delinquents would have to put in three to six months at my school," he said. "By the time they left, the parents had a new kid."

Mona Keller, mother of 6-year-old gung-fu demonstrator Mihaela, traveled with five other students and their families from instructor Jerry Weldon's martial arts school in Battle Ground, Wash. She, too, is a firm believer in the benefits of martial arts.

"Mihaela is a fast learner, she picks things up pretty quick. Being female, my husband and I wanted her to learn how to protect herself, but there is so much more to martial arts than that." Keller said of her daughter, who has been studying martial arts for 1 1/2 years. "She really enjoys watching and participating in the demonstrations. She was really excited to come and do this. If she could do kung fu 24-7, she would."

Also traveling with the group from Battle Ground, two-year student Sue Burton explained, "We came to Brookings to support our sifu (instructor). (Martial arts is) self-defense, but it's also spiritual and about acquiring self-confidence."

Her instructor, Weldon, was trained by Loren nearly 30 years ago. This is the fourth year he and his students have attended the Brookings celebration.

"Jon Loren was my teacher, and we always try to be supportive of his event," Weldon said.

"It's part of the martial arts bonding and brotherhood. Your teacher is kind of like your father," He said. "It's like a family. I will pass it on as well."

Loren's martial arts school accepts adults, as well as children ages 6 and older. For information on the school, or to have a lion dance performed for a special occasion, call (541) 469-3328