From Dragon to Snake

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On a clear, cold Sunday afternoon I made my way to Wentworth Avenue, just south of the Loop in Chicago. I remembered as I walked, the only other time that I’d been to Chinatown. It was years ago. I was breaking in my new to me Mamiya 645AFD and I ended up shooting a couple rolls of Fuji E-6 transparency film. They turned out to be two of the, to date, less than 20 rolls I’ve put through that camera. Today the goal, and my entire perspective was quite different. I was going in to cover the Lunar New Year parade, this time through the lens of my years living in Asia. While in Korea, I often asked my friends about events in Seoul to celebrate the holiday. It turned out that during Seollal as it’s known in Korean, the city turns into a ghost town. There is a mass migration out of the city as families gather in their ancestral homes. It’s a good opportunity to photograph giant subway stations devoid of people, but not much else. This year however, I anticipated an energetic public event.

Known in China as Yuan Tan, Lunar New Year is celebrated on the second new moon after the winter solstice. The parade was part of 15 days of celebration celebrating the beginning of the year of the water snake. The snake represents the12 year cycle of the Chinese zodiac, and water comes from the five year repeating cycle of elements.

The parade itself was a lively event, and the sidewalks were packed. People cheered loudly for the Chinese themed presentations including beautiful two person lion costumes, fireworks and a long dragon, requiring several people to operate. There were also representatives from several local Chinatown cultural organizations, and seeming a bit out of place, local marching bands and of course Ronald MacDonald. After passing beneath the large archway over Wentworth Ave., the lion performers gathered around the marshall’s stage as the observers flowed in behind them for a brief closing ceremony and some fireworks. I was just looking for the parade staging area when I noticed all of the lion costume performers and a group of musicians leading a crowd down the street.

The lion costumes and dance performance comes from a legend in ancient China where a beast called a ‘nian’ would terrorize, and sometimes consume, villagers. The people soon learned that the color red, loud noises and light would frighten the creature away. Red is now seen as a symbol of good luck for the New Year. In modern times, firecrackers are in abundance and red is seen as a symbol of good luck. Gifts of money are often delivered in red envelopes, red lanterns are hung and good luck wishes are written on red paper.

The lion dancers and their accompanying musicians went through the streets performing for many local businesses. Their routine involved three bows outside, with a further performance inside to bring luck and prosperity in the coming year.

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