Something to crow about


January 23, 1993|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

Lillian Lee Kim is no bigger than a minute, but when it comes to staging the annual Chinese Lunar New Year Festival sponsored by Grace and St. Peter's Episcopal Church, she is "the enforcer."

"Without Mrs. Kim, it's not held," says her friend, Arthur R. Lee, a 38-year-old NASA engineer.

It's as simple as that: Mrs. Kim, 73, has been the backbone of Baltimore's new year festival since its inception in 1954. And she will be there tomorrow, when the Chinese community associated with Grace and St. Peter's Chinese parish and Chinese language school celebrates the Year of the Rooster -- in Cantonese, the Year of the Gai-ee -- at the Waxter Center for Senior Citizens.

Mrs. Kim remembers committing to the first new year celebration at the church, a hub of education, immigrant information and fellowship for the Baltimore Chinese community since the 1920s. "If we have one, we will have to have it every year," she said at the time. The young students and parishioners replied, "Don't be afraid, we'll be here to help you."

rTC But as Chinese families gained an economic foothold, most moved out to the Baltimore suburbs, leaving Mrs. Kim behind to plan the party on her own. "After the first [festival] they started to drift away already. Now we have to keep it up," says Mrs. Kim, who is also the language school principal.

With the help of about a dozen key people, including members of the Yau, Lee, Lui, Hom and Wong families, the festival has continued to take place even as the parish's Chinese population has dwindled and the language school has gained more American-born students than Chinese.

Loyalists, such as Mr. Lee, and his brother Raymond, 33, have grown up with the festival. Under the weight of an elaborate and fearsome lion costume, the two brothers have performed the traditional "mo tze" dance to drive away evil spirits and invite good luck into the new year since they were children. Tomorrow, in the company of two other lions and a trio on gong, cymbal and drum, the Lee brothers will again chase and torment a "teaser" -- emblem of the evil spirits -- in an ancient dance that resembles the animal-like stances of the martial arts.

Although they no longer live in the vicinity of Baltimore's fading Chinatown neighborhood, the brothers have remained part of the church and continue to honor their Chinese heritage. "It's partly a personal commitment, a sort of pride that we are Chinese," says Raymond Lee, a commercial photographer.

The new year celebration, joyful, noisy, and full of good food, is a galvanizing event that gathers the scattered Chinese. "Every day we try to interact with everyone who is not Chinese." Observing the new year is "a commitment to the memory of who you are," Mr. Lee says.

Both brothers also speak of Grace and St. Peter's Church, where their parents came upon arrival in Baltimore, and where Arthur Lee served 16 years on the vestry, as a "common ground" they want to maintain.

Mrs. Kim, as well, grew up in the church. She arrived in Baltimore from Portland, Ore., in 1921. Her father, Yick You Lee, an %J American-born Chinese, opened a laundry near Lexington Market. With his family, he, too, gravitated to Grace and St. Peter's, which became a center of Chinese life when sisters Frances and Daisy Marshall moved their Chinese school to the church from the YMCA early in the century.

The Christian themes found in the Marshalls' teaching materials persuaded many Chinese students to convert and become part of Grace and St. Peter's congregation. Until five years ago, a bilingual service was held weekly and a clergyman was assigned to the Chinese ministry. The church is the "spiritual home of the Chinese in Baltimore," Mrs. Kim says.

Mrs. Kim, a Western High School graduate, worked in her family's laundry and became a mainstay at the church, where she helped usher newly arrived Chinese through the complex immigration process.

A city employee for many years, she is a familiar and fond figure whom city and state officials cannot turn down when she invites them to language school events or requests proclamations honoring the new year.

Thanks to Mrs. Kim's multicultural vision, the new year festival has become not only a Chinese tradition, but a Baltimore tradition, as much a part of the fabric of the city as the "I Am an American Day Parade" or a scuttling Preakness crab race. Its focus on Chinese music and fashion has expanded to include a colorful and quirky array of Baltimore entertainers, from Boumi Temple clowns to Ukrainian folk dancers.

Mrs. Kim "is at the center of the web, she's the head spider," says Nona Porter, a teacher at Grace and St. Peter's school and a member of the parish who has been part of the new year celebration for 12 years.

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