We are the lion
For members of the Gee Yung Chinese Culture Association, the lion dance isn’t just a performance—it’s a lifestyle.
For nearly two decades, Gee Yung has been a permanent fixture of the Chinatown area, providing a “second home” to its 30 or so troupe members who practice Shaolin arts, such as the lion dance, at the Chinese Cultural Plaza. Another dozen or more children come to the plaza every week to learn the values that are instilled through the lion dance.
“It’s like spending time with family,” says student Jaron Banes. He is known as a sihing, an older student who helps teach younger children the ways of the lion. Currently, the school is run by Harlan Dai Tong Lee, who is known as the Sifu. Several other members hold the title of Si-sook, or assistant instructor, and help teach students who come to Gee Yung to learn about Chinese cultural arts.
Si-sook Ken Kang has been with Gee Yung since 2000, and says that lion dancing goes far beyond cultural traditions. He explains that lion dancing uses the values and movements within kung fu, and students go through specific teachings to learn the dance. And for Kang, the lion dance isn’t just about performing or getting in touch with his cultural roots; it’s about practicing positive values and giving back to the community.
“In the Chinese culture, lion dance is so important,” Kang explains. “We really believe in the lion’s blessing effect. The blessings that you give out there, they’ll come back.”
Gee Yung is often asked to perform at weddings, birthday parties or business openings to usher in wealth and prosperity to families and companies. And, depending on the occasion, individuals will ask the Gee Yung lion dancers to perform in a specific color, which can convey a different blessing. For example, new parents will often request a red lion to perform for their infant, because red symbolizes blood, life and longevity.
A bride and groom, on the other hand, might request a green or gold lion, which represents wealth and prosperity in hopes of having a financially successful marriage.
“The lion is there to ward off negativity and bring in positivity to your life,” Kang says.
He explains that the dance came from a legend that lions could ward off evil spirits, while bringing physical and financial health to the community. But now, Kang sees the lion dance as the ultimate way to give back to younger generations, giving them the skills to live long and successful lives.
“‘Gee Yung’ stands for, ‘go for it, be brave, be courageous,’” explains Kang. He says young children learn Chinese cultural history, but are also told stories and legends that give them a solid value system.
Kang tells me the story of the “jong” lion dance, which takes years to learn. In the story, there is a lion that doesn’t have any food, so he must climb a mountain to get it. He must jump and leap over valleys and obstacles to get to the mountain, but once he gets there, the hard work has paid off. The lion is joyful and satisfied.
“So just like in life, for us to fulfill our goals… we have to go for it,” he says.
Kang and Banes are only two of the many students who have been influenced by the legacy of Gee Yung founder Sun Kung Sifu Lum Dai Yong.
The origins of the lion dance lie within the movements of kung fu, the disciples of which have been honing and passing down their skills since the heyday of the Han Dynasty, more than 2,000 years ago. But it wasn’t until 1941 that the Gee Yung Chinese Culture Association was established in Honolulu to carry the traditional art form into the future.
Dai Yong was born in 1895 and raised in a Shaolin monastery. He eventually became a personal bodyguard to Dr. Sun Yat Sen, the first president and founding father of the Republic of China (and a graduate of Honolulu’s ‘Iolani School), after studying martial arts for many years.
After Dr. Sun Yat Sen died in 1925, Dai Yong was invited to the Hawaiian islands to be one of the teachers for the Jing Moo Tai Yuk Oui Association of Honolulu. In 1941, he decided to open his own martial arts school.
The founder’s name has its own meaning: The title Sun Kung means that an individual has become an expert, not only in martial arts, but also spiritual healing, exorcism and natural medicine. The second title, Lum Sifu, means “bone-setter,” which describes his power to help heal the sick within the Chinese community.
When he came to Hawaiʻi, Dai Yong brought a unique style of kung fu, Fut Ga Kuen, otherwise known as “Monk Family Fist.” Although there are many different styles of kung fu, Fat Ga Guen is one of the oldest forms within the Shaolin system, and combines movements from the five major families of Shaolin: Lau, Li, Mok, Hung and Choi.
When Dai Yong passed away in 1957, Gee Yung was handed over to Arthur Yau Sun Lee, who is known as the grandmaster. He took Gee Yung across the globe, opening three other locations in San Francisco, Los Angeles and France. Lee continued to run the world-renowned school until he passed away in 2013.
Both of Gee Yung’s founding fathers have left a legacy throughout the Honolulu community and across the globe. Their values are continually passed down through generations of students who come to learn the art forms of Gee Yung.
Banes is one of Kang’s students, and says that kung fu and lion dancing have given him strength and focus. He has been with Gee Yung long enough that he teaches young children martial arts, which he says has its own challenges.
“We teach them how to look like a lion, since people don’t look like lions,” Banes says. “When I was their age, I would have to learn all these sets. Now I just pass it on and instill into them what has been instilled into me.”
There is a step-by-step process, much like learning kung fu, that children must go through to learn the lion dance. First, the children learn the foundations of how to look like a lion. Then they learn the movements, which represent specific values within kung fu. Next, they learn the emotions of the lion, and how the lion interacts with other people.
And it’s your own personality that can shine through the lion’s emotions, Banes says. For him, the most difficult part was learning the instruments involved in the lion dance, which every student must learn.
“The drum is the heartbeat of the lion,” he explains.
But for Banes, every minute that he spends training at Gee Yung is time that helps him develop strength in all other parts of his life.
“The movements show symbols of value, like respect, and the powerfulness of the lion,” Banes says.
And it’s the values in the lion dance—wealth, longevity and perseverance—that Gee Yung hopes to spread across Honolulu and to the rest of the world.