Lion dancer takes off his mask

Pub date February 17, 2011
SectionPixel Vision

Another year and another ferocious super-natural lion symbolically rips and spits out heads of lettuce along the storefronts of Kearny Avenue. This is the lion dance, a highly visceral and visually unique performance that is a centerpiece in the city’s Southwest Airlines Chinese New Year parade, a 150-year old event that draws the participation of over 100 community groups. 

Although each performance is different, one thing stays the same: the lion dancers’ faces are never revealed and their identity stays behind the mask. We were lucky enough to speak with one veteran lion dancer about growing up with the parade and his time inside the lion.

Wilson Mah is a native San Franciscan. He teaches lion dancing at Loong Mah Sing See Wui, or the Dragon Horse Lion and Dragon Dance Association, a non-profit dedicated to teaching the lion dance to its 100 young members between the ages of four and 19. Mah’s organization is one of the main lion dance troupes in this year’s Chinese New Year parade.

In his own youth, Mah was afforded an education about Chinese culture that he spends his adulthood passing on. “When I grew up, it was very common for kids to go to Chinese school right after our public elementary school let out,” Mah says. “The school that I went to was inside of a Methodist church called Hip Wo, I got involved in the parades through my school and the church while I was growing up.”

Mah remembers being affected by the lion dancers at an early age. “I was a baby and I remember being held by my father and watching the lions. I was terrified! For me, that was no paper-mâché symbolic lion. That was a lion that had made its way through heaven and down through the portals to Victory Hall on Stockton Street.”

Mah maintains that it is this unmatched, supernatural quality about the lions which makes them part of a rich Chinese cultural heritage worth holding onto. “When you see that lion and you watch it perform, you see how visceral and tenacious it is. That, contrasted with the idea that they bring good luck, is very powerful. I’m a fourth generation American and I can’t think of anything else equivalent to that.”

Nowadays, Mah uses the strength and tenacity of the lion to empower the youth in his group, encouraging them to manifest the best qualities of the lion both in and out of his class. Mah’s teaching experience dates way back. After dodging the Vietnam War, he set out to do community-based work and helped to establish The Kearny Street Workshop, a historic Asian American arts organization in SoMa. The road that eventually led Mah to teach the lion dance continued smoothly until the early ‘90s, when Mah and his family struggled after their house suffered significant damage from a fire. Mah decided to make something out of the rough situation. “While I was waiting for my house to be rebuilt I wanted to do something constructive.”

He’s been teaching the lion dance ever since. Although the group performs the lion dance at special events and celebrations throughout the year, he says the Chinese New Year Parade is an important opportunity for his dancers to showcase their hard work and cultural pride to the rest of the city. “We do it for the San Francisco community at large,” Mah says. “I still have cultural sensitivities, I’ve gone through racial intolerance growing up. I think it’s important to show the public the beauty of Chinese arts and culture. We want to bring a lot of these things to a positive light.”


SF Chinese New Year Parade

Sat/19, 5:30 p.m., free

Starts at Second Street and Market, SF

(415) 986-1370