Lillian Kim sees more than a thousand seasons of Asian tradition reflected in the eyes of the lion that swaggers and skips this time of year in dazzling hues of orange, red and gold.
For more than three decades, the 78-year-old matriarch of Baltimore's Chinese community has presided over the centuries-old practice of the lion dance -- perhaps the most widely recognized image of Asian culture. The mesmerizing performance is an integral piece of the Lunar New Year celebration, a holiday that begins Wednesday for millions of Asians across the world.
"It's our link with our heritage. Without it, we're 100 percent American," said Kim, who remembers little of her homeland and the village of Toishan that she left 75 years ago. But by piecing together fading memories and knowledge gleaned from books and friends, Kim has managed to preserve an ancient custom, celebrated annually in Baltimore at Grace and St. Peter's Episcopal Church.
This year, Asian communities throughout the Baltimore area will celebrate the Year of the Tiger. According to legend, the tiger is one of 12 animals called on by Buddha to appear before him and told to ruleover the years. The tiger governs the third year. The rat and ox rule the first and second. And the tiger is followed in the cycle by the rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.
The animal governing a person's birth year is believed by Asians to determine how fortunate that individual will be. For those who celebrate the Lunar New Year, though, the observance is not just about horoscopes and lion dances. The holiday is a time for reflection, a time for rejuvenation, a time for rebirth. Like the lion of the dance, who awakens from a deep slumber each year to begin anew, those who celebrate shake off the past and embrace the future.
"It's considered a very auspicious and happy time," said Professor Myron L. Cohen, a Columbia University anthropologist who specializes in Chinese culture and society. "One reason it was so important back then is because it meant you had survived another year. It is a family festival. It is really a testimony to the joy of life."
Increasing national pride and devotion to preserving customs have helped the celebration endure over the years in scattered Asian enclaves throughout the world. In some cases, those same aspects of pride have brought the celebration back: In Korea, where the observance was abandoned several decades ago, the holiday has been reborn.
Although the Lunar New Year is commonly referred to as the Chinese New Year in this country, other major Asian groups, including Koreans, Vietnamese and Tibetans, celebrate the holiday as their own. The Japanese stopped observing it in the 19th century. The observance dates to antiquity, to a time when farmers paid homage to the lunar cycle; it dictated how they lived their lives, what and where they planted, when they harvested.
The lion legend, which is woven through Asian culture like the bamboo, paper and cloth legacy that dancers wear to celebrate it, is a simple tale of casting off bad luck for good. Long ago, the legend goes, a huge beast that resembled a lion terrorized and fed upon villagers once a year. When banging pots and lighting )) firecrackers to scare it proved futile, villagers prayed to the gods. Appease the beast with vegetables outside your door and pray, the gods answered. It worked so well, according to the story, that the full-bellied beast grew drunk with food, fell asleep and awoke transformed into the village guardian.
That explains why, in some Asian countries, the new year is followed by several days of parades, fireworks and performances of the lion dance. Some celebrations last for weeks, others for a month.
"In China, the new year is a big, big deal -- bigger even than Christmas" in the United States, said Shujun Li Hom, who moved to Baltimore from Hong Kong 11 years ago to study music at the Peabody Institute.
U.S. celebrations are sometimes held before or after the first day of the new year to accommodate work schedules.
"In America, you streamline some of the customs because you can't take several days off from work or your family lives too far away to get together," said Thuy Dinh, 36, a Silver Spring attorney whose family fled Vietnam in 1978.
Big parades are held in larger Asian communities in New York and California, but in most cities, the celebration is a quiet, spiritual family affair.
Its importance is not lost on non-Asians. The growth of the Asian-American population -- in Maryland, it more than doubled from 68,000 in 1980 to nearly 140,000 in 1990 -- has both spread the observance and spurred commercial interest in the holiday.