Lion Dance Traditions in Chinatown in the Nation's Capital

Step back through the decades to meet people who have sustained the Lion Dance tradition in Washington, DC amidst a changing streetscape.

By Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center

and the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

Chinese Youth Club Lion Dance Team (1970) by Harry Lee ChowOriginal Source: Harry Lee Chow

Lion dance is a Chinese cultural tradition that is performed to chase out bad energy, herald in good fortune, and express respect. The first lion dance performance in DC was organized by the Chinese Youth Club (CYC) in the 1940s.

Here, George Lee and the Chinese Youth Club continue the tradition in the 1970s, attracting large crowds from across the District, and the Maryland and Virginia suburbs.

Lion Dancer Playing in Exploding Firecrackers (1990-02) by Robert BretzfelderOriginal Source: Robert Bretzfelder

CYC continues the tradition today, along with lion dance teams from across the DC metro region, including those organized by martial arts studios and Asian American student clubs at local colleges and universities. Here, a lion dancer plays face-first into exploding firecrackers.

Two Lions Bow at the Szechuan Restaurant (1990-02) by Robert BretzfelderOriginal Source: Robert Bretzfelder

Annually, a critical mass of these groups converge on DC’s Chinatown for the Lunar New Year parade and performances at local restaurants where they put on a show for customers and—more importantly—bless the kitchen shrines and staff, thus ensuring a prosperous new year.

Two Men Resting between Lion Dance Performances (1990-02) by Robert BretzfelderOriginal Source: Robert Bretzfelder

Lion dance is based in Chinese Kung-Fu techniques and movements. Each lion is animated by two people working as a team, the head and the tail, with their steps and gestures coordinated to the rhythms of live percussion.

Chinese Youth Club Lion Dance Archival Footage from Harry Chow (2019) by Raymond WongOriginal Source: Harry Lee Chow

8mm film by, and courtesy of, Harry Lee Chow

Lion dancers from the Chinese Youth Club perform at a Double Ten (Taiwan National Day) festival in DC’s Chinatown, ca. 1968.

Chinese Youth Club Lion Dance Team (1954) by Chinese Youth ClubOriginal Source: Penny and Jack Lee/Chinese Youth Club

The first practitioners of Lion Dance in DC's Chinatown, the Chinese Youth Club (CYC) was established in the late 1930s, and today continues its founders’ legacy of engaging youth in athletics, cultural education, and volunteer activities.

The 1940s and 50s

In the 1940s, during WWII, CYC organized the city’s first lion dance performance for a fundraising event supporting the war effort. They borrowed equipment from the On Leong Merchants Association in New York City. By the 1950s, seen here, they had their own lion.

George Lee playing Lion Dance Drums (1969) by Brigg CabeOriginal Source: DC Public Library, Star Collection © Washington Post.

The 1960s and 1970s

George Lee leads the percussive accompaniment for the Chinese Youth Club lion dancers at a Chinatown summer festival in the late 1960s. Lee helped to coach the team and provided the drumming for events.

Chinese Youth Center Lion Dance Team on H Street during lunar new year (Late 1960s) by Harry Lee ChowOriginal Source: Harry Lee Chow

Chinatown’s annual lunar new year parade has been organized by DC’s Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) for about seven decades. The parade is an important celebration of the neighborhood’s history...

... and is the largest and longest continuously running, community-organized, Asian American public event in the city.

The iconic China Doll and China Inn restaurants, seen in the prior photo, are long gone; replaced by Motto, a Hilton Boutique Hotel; and Crimson, a high-end whiskey bar. The Chinese grocery and knick-knack store, once bustling in the building to the right, are also but a memory.

The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association still remains around the corner on I street.

Lion Dancers in front of the Reynold's Center for American Art and Portraiture (2019) by Susana Raab, for the Anacostia Community MuseumOriginal Source: Susana Raab - Anacostia Community Museum

Today, multiple lion dance teams participate in the parade. During lunar new year season they are in high demand. They are invited to perform at parties, embassies, and schools. 

Wong People Kung Fu School Lion Dancing on 14th Street NW (2024-02) by Sojin KimOriginal Source: Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

Businesses—even beyond Chinatown—invite Lion Dance teams to their spaces to ensure a good start to the new year.  Here, Sifu Raymond Wong's Wong People Kung Fu Association perform at a 14th street restaurant in February of 2024.

Lettuce, representing wealth, is dangled from the roof. One dancer climbs on the shoulders of the other to "eat" the lettuce, spitting some out on the crowd as a blessing.

Chinese Youth Club Lion Head (1974) by Harry Lee ChowOriginal Source: Harry Lee Chow

A Welcoming Martial Arts Community Arises

Over the years, lion dance has become an important activity signaling connections to heritage, community, as well as to place. Here, William “Hawk” Lee holds the Chinese Youth Club lion head during a performance on H street in Chinatown, in 1974.

Future Sifu Hoy Lee, in his youth (1967-02) by Hoy LeeOriginal Source: Hoy K. Lee

Martial artist Hoy K. Lee strikes a pose after performing with the Chinese Youth Club’s lion dance team. Lee was among the first teachers in DC who formally taught kung fu.

Young Hoy struck his pose in the street where this bus now passes the Gallery Place - Chinatown Station sign in this recent Street View. You can click this image and walk the streets of modern-day Chinatown to see how much has changed.

Jow Ga Performs in front of the Szechuan Restaurant (1990-02) by Robert BretzfelderOriginal Source: Robert Bretzfelder

It was through this and other martial arts schools that the participation in lion dance began to extend beyond Chinese Americans. Two decades later, in 1990, Hoy K. Lee guides a young cymbal player during a performance by the Jow Ga Kung Fu Association. Duke Amayo is on drums.

Jow Ga Kung Fu Association Lion Dance Team (1988-02) by Ralph Rinzler Folklife Collections and ArchivesOriginal Source: Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections

Participants in DC martial arts communities are diverse, representing Asian and non-Asian practitioners, as well as different generations, lineages, and systems. Here, members of the Jow Ga Kung Fu Association march in Chinatown during the lunar new year celebration in 1988.

Stanley Dea, on gong; and Jose Diaz, warming his hands prior to taking over the lion head, parade through the Chinatown neighborhood.

Jow Ga Kung Fu Association in the DC Lunar New Year Parade (1988) by Ralph Rinzler Folklife Collections and ArchivesOriginal Source: Ralph Rinzler Folklife Collections and Archives

Members of the Jow Ga Kung Fu Association perform lion dance as they pass the intersection of H and Seventh streets NW during the 1988 lunar new year parade. 

Formal training in this particular kung-fu discipline began in DC’s Chinatown in the late 1960s. Six decades later, there are now several generations of diverse practitioners of this system in the region. Other students went on to found Jow Ga branches as far afield as Australia.

Jow Ga Kung Fu Association students practice lion dance at their school on 6th street (1988) by Ralph Rinzler Folklife Collections and ArchivesOriginal Source: Ralph Rinzler Folklife Collections and Archives

Jow Ga Kung Fu Association members prepare for the lunar new year performance in their Chinatown studio on Sixth street NW, in 1988. Members visible on the left side of the photo include Duke Amayo, Troy Williams, Stanley Dea, and Sifu Deric Mimms.

Jow Ga Kung Fu Association Lion Dancers on H St in DC (1974-10-10) by Willy Lin Kung FuOriginal Source: Willy Lin Kung Fu

Sifu Dean Chin drums as the Jow Ga Kung Fu Association lion dancers march down H Street during Double Ten festival, in 1974. 

The green tiled roof marks the On Leong Merchants Association, a traditional mutual aid society, whose presence in DC dates back to Chinatown’s original roots on Pennsylvania Avenue, NW.

On Leong Chinese Merchants Association Building (1960/1979) by Harry LeeOriginal Source: Harry Lee Chow

In the early 1930s, when the earlier Chinatown on Pennsylvania Ave. was displaced by a Federal building project, the On Leong Merchants Association was instrumental in relocating the community to H St. NW.

They facilitated the purchase or lease of 11 properties on H Street by Chinese businesses.

On the first floor of the On Leong building you can see Kung Fu trophies in the left window. Generations of Kung Fu students purchased their uniforms in the storefront on the right side of the building.

Through the 1980s, lion dance teams would perform for the three restaurants seen here, surrounding the On Leong building.

Today, only the On Leong building remains, with the Chinatown Garden Restaurant now operating there.

The new building next door hosts the Chinatown Community Cultural Center, where the Wong People Kung Fu Association offers free kung fu and tai chi training to preserve and share the traditions.

George Lee and Friend in Kung Fu Poses (1973) by Harry Lee ChowOriginal Source: Jack Lee

George Lee (left) and friend strike martial arts poses, ca. 1973. Lee was a performer and later a teacher with the CYC lion dance team. He performed for at least two decades with the team, and later helped train the next generation.

Lunar New Year Parade (1988) by Ralph Rinzler Folklife Collections and ArchivesOriginal Source: Ralph Rinzler Folklife Collections and Archives

This image documents the built landscape before the Gallery Place development was built above the metro station at this corner.  The Chinese Youth Club lion dance team passes the Friendship Archway at the intersection of Seventh and H streets NW in Chinatown, in 1988.  

Through the decades, the public presentation of Chinese culture in such events as the annual lunar new year parade have played an important role in representing the historical heritage of the neighborhood in the face of redevelopment, displacement, and gentrification.

A Girl Brought Her Miniature Lion Costume to the Parade (1990-02) by Robert BretzfelderOriginal Source: Robert Bretzfelder

Meanwhile, the respect for tradition and dedication to the art of Lion Dance embodied by the Chinese Youth Club and traditional martial arts practitioners throughout the DC metropolitan area continues to inspire the next generation of fearsome lion dancers.

Credits: Story

Special thanks to the content contributors Harry Lee Chow, Penny and Jack Lee/Chinese Youth Club, Willy Lin, Hoy Lee, and Robert Bretzfelder. Additional content is from The People’s Archives at DC Public Library, the Smithsonian Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, and the Anacostia Community Museum.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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