Building community in Boston’s Chinatown
As one of the few cities that still preserve a historical Chinatown, Boston has a tradition of celebrating Lunar New Year with a lion dance parade. Each year, different dance troupes put on lion costumes, set up their drums, and perform from one store to another around Chinatown.
Among them, a unique group always sticks out—it is a troupe consisting of only female performers, and it is the only Asian women’s lion and dragon dance troupe in the United States.
The all-women troupe, Gund Kwok, was founded in 1998. It aims to give Asian women an opportunity to express their power and strength by performing lion and dragon dances. The troupe is named after the phrase heroine in Chinese, which symbolizes women’s power and strength. Right now, the group has 18 members in total, including 16 adults and two minors.
However, women performers are not always welcomed in the lion dance practices. The lion dance is a traditional dance in Asian culture that requires performers to imitate a lion’s movements in costumes. The dance is usually performed during festivals and new year celebrations to bring fortune and good luck. Historically, women have been excluded and even prohibited from joining and performing the dance. This is because people believed that menstruation contaminates the ritual purity of the practice. People also thought that women didn’t have the physical strength to perform these rigorous dances.
“I noticed that this is an art that was traditionally denied to women,” said Cheng Imm Tan, the founder and CEO of Gund Kwok. “So, I purposely set up this troupe to give Asian women a chance to learn and to perform this art, and to show to the rest of the world that Asian women are just as strong and capable of performing this art with excellence. And we can do just about anything that men can do, as long as we put our minds to it.”
Tan grew up loving martial arts and Kung Fu movies. Yet, she wasn’t allowed to learn it because of the misogynistic stereotypes. It wasn’t until she came to the United States that she had a chance to learn Tai Chi, a kind of martial arts practice, which later led her to the creation of Gund Kwok.
Although lion dance practice is very different from martial arts, some fundamental movements are based on martial arts skills. The dance practice also requires the discipline and flexibility of martial art practices. Therefore, the exclusion of women in the lion dance reflects a similar sentiment in the martial arts field, which is also historically exclusive and misogynistic.
Master Bow-sim Mark, a well-known martial arts instructor and performer, faced many challenges being a female practicing martial arts. According to Mark’s long-time student, Sifu Jean Lukitsh, Mark constantly felt that she had to be better than the men to earn the same level of treatment. People also used to challenge Mark’s skills and gave Mark’s students a hard time following a female instructor.
“As a petite immigrant, people doubted her abilities and other schools saw her as a threat because they had never seen anyone be able to move the way she did and draw so much attention on stage,” said Mark’s daughter Chris Yen.
Fortunately, practicing martial arts has already become widely acceptable for women due to the change in social attitudes regarding gender equality. Women are no longer stigmatized and forbidden to enter traditionally male-dominated fields. Physical training like martial arts and lion dance is now viewed as a form of women empowerment and, for Asian women specifically, a chance to find their community and reconnect to their culture.
“As Asians living in a white-dominated culture, we don’t get a lot of chances to experience and share and live in a culture,” said Tan. “Usually, it’s only recognized during the month of Asian American Heritage Month and, of course, the Lunar New Year.”
Tan said that, for several students, the online practice sessions were a lifeline to them during the pandemic, especially during the Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate movements. She hopes to use lion dance as a medium to reach out to other women of different cultures, take a look at the effects of sexism and racism that women experience, and have a better understanding and build solidarity.
“I think any kind of exclusive female team, no matter what field, is always an opportunity for learning more about each other and why they choose to be here together,” said Yen. “These gatherings spark discussions and exchange of knowledge.”
Beyond traditional movements and performances, Tan has been choreographing new formats of lion dance that combines different conventional dances and weaves various components of her troupe’s performances into a single story.
As the city opens up again, Gund Kwok is starting a new series of lion dance trial classes. Despite COVID still being a potential risk for in-person activities, the determination of reclaiming traditions and building communities will continue to bring this group to its bright future.