The apothecary and the insurance agency on Waverly Place had closed as darkness fell over San Francisco’s Chinatown. But for dancer Jayde Wong, the night was just beginning as she disappeared under a 5-foot-long bamboo lion costume, trimmed with bright yellow fur and blinking paper eyes the size of dinner plates.
Another young woman beat a drum, setting a rhythm for Jayde and her partner to practice jong, a notoriously difficult lion dance performed on elevated platforms. For several minutes, the 16-year-old and her partner made daring leaps on 5- and 6-foot-tall poles that sent her soaring above red lanterns that illuminated the alleyway.
When they jumped back down to solid ground, a crowd of onlookers — drawn to the music from Grant Avenue tourist boutiques and the hip restaurant Mister Jiu’s — burst into applause.
“I didn’t think it would be so much fun,” said Jayde, who has been a lion dancer for more than a year.
A decade ago, few women could be found under the brightly colored lion head. Now, young women have increasingly joined the ranks of San Francisco’s troupes, which perform at Lunar New Year parades as well as weddings and business openings to ward off bad spirits.
The martial art of lion dancing, which dates to dynastic China, is historically performed by young men and long ago was associated with some of Chinatown’s gangs, which extorted money from businesses in exchange for protection.
According to a legend taught to Chinese children, a village fearful of an attack by a beast called the nian created the lion costume to intimidate the monster. The lion, resplendent with large, blinking eyes and a beard, allegedly scared the nian (a homonym for “year” in Mandarin) away from the village.
On a recent evening at LionDanceMe, the Chinatown entertainment company where Jayde trains, dozens of teenage boys and girls flocked to the sidewalk outside Waverly Place to practice for the coming weeks’ performances. By Tuesday, the first day of the Lunar New Year, the teens will have put on dozens of shows this year.
“It was a dream growing up when I saw the lions coming down in the parade,” said Crystal Yao, 17, who, like Jayde, attends Lowell High School in San Francisco.
Many veteran lion dancers called the emergence of female dancers a welcome change.
When Adriana and Liliana Yee Rodrigues started as lion dancers more than 25 years ago, they were the only girls performing at Chinatown’s Lunar New Year parades. The sisters didn’t think much of it at the time but noticed that people made comments and stared at them when they unveiled themselves.
“Every time we’d lion-dance in Chinatown, as soon as we’d take off our head they’d say, ‘Wow, they’re ladies,’” said Liliana Yee Rodrigues. “They’re so surprised.”
The other females they saw at celebrations remained on the sidelines and assembled costumes. Only within the past decade have more women and girls started training as lion dancers. Teenage girls, in particular, have expressed a stronger interest in embracing the tradition, said Norman Lau, LionDanceMe’s director.
When Lau founded the company in 2012 after more than 25 years studying the martial art, he instantly noticed the demographic change. An even number of boys and girls had begun joining the company’s local clubs. Now, 5 out of 6 leaders of LionDanceMe clubs at San Francisco’s public high schools are young women.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Lau said. “Before, traditionally, sifus (masters) did not allow women to do it, because they think it’s a male thing only to do the lion.”
The inclusion of young women in lion dance troupes has destigmatized the art, he said, noting that troupes in Hong Kong and China were once associated with organized crime, using the costumes in lion dance battles that often resulted in one or both parties getting hurt.
In San Francisco, during Lunar New Year celebrations, lions once leaped up off the ground for heads of cai (Mandarin for lettuce and a homonym for wealth) and gobbled up the greens in a bid for the prize at the center: traditional red envelopes full of protection money. Lions still dance for the envelopes but no longer extort mom-and-pop shops.
Not everyone has fully accepted female lion dancers. Businesses occasionally ask LionDanceMe to provide all-male dance troupes for events, but Lau estimated he’s received only three such requests among the nearly 300 performances his students have put on in the past year.
Although the girls said they are at times discouraged that male lion dancers dominate competitions and performances, the imbalance pushes them to train harder.
Some of the new students at LionDanceMe said they were drawn in by watching their female peers perform at school. The Yee Rodrigues sisters credit their mother and aunt, both of whom practiced martial arts in their youth, as role models who shepherded the next generation of female lion dancers. The new wave of women and girls can be found in several cities with large Chinese immigrant populations, such as Boston and New York City.
“It makes me more determined to reach those same heights and to prove that women can jump the same distances and reach the same heights as male lion dancers,” Felicia Su, a 16-year-old student at Lowell High, said before she marched back toward the poles on Waverly Place to don a yellow and purple lion head.
On this night, dozens of LionDanceMe’s high schoolers flooded the alleyway, stopping traffic as they performed in the streets. Jayde ducked back under the big costume with her partner, bobbing to the beat of the drums as they prepared for a Lunar New Year performance the next day at Hillsdale Shopping Center in San Mateo. On the ground, Felicia mimicked her friend’s movements. People in the crowd snapped photos.
A young girl and her mother walked up to Felicia and peered at her, curiously. Felicia nudged the little one with the lion’s head, then popped the papier-mâché frame off her shoulders.
“You’ve got a fan,” the mother told Felicia with a laugh.