Talk Description to Me

Episode 37 - Lunar New Year

February 13, 2021 Christine Malec and JJ Hunt Season 2 Episode 37
Talk Description to Me
Episode 37 - Lunar New Year
Chapters
0:46
Thank you Yang!
5:33
Red and Gold
15:46
Dancing Lions
20:11
Dragons
Talk Description to Me
Episode 37 - Lunar New Year
Feb 13, 2021 Season 2 Episode 37
Christine Malec and JJ Hunt

Whether you call it the Spring Festival, Lunar New Year, or Chinese New Year -  this is a time to celebrate with family and friends. With guidance and listener support, Christine and JJ discuss and describe the visuals of the holiday, from food and clothing, to lanterns and dragon dances. Gong hei fat choy, everyone!

Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/TalkDescriptionToMe)

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Whether you call it the Spring Festival, Lunar New Year, or Chinese New Year -  this is a time to celebrate with family and friends. With guidance and listener support, Christine and JJ discuss and describe the visuals of the holiday, from food and clothing, to lanterns and dragon dances. Gong hei fat choy, everyone!

Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/TalkDescriptionToMe)

JJ Hunt:

Talk description to me with Christine Malec and JJ Hunt.

Christine Malec:

Hi, I'm Christine Malec.

JJ Hunt:

And I'm JJ Hunt. This is talk description to Me where the visuals of current events and the world around us get hashed-out in description-rich conversations.

Christine Malec:

This is a very important and festive time of year for members of the Asian community. It's the Spring Festival or the Lunar New Year. And it's in my understanding, it's definitely the festive high point of the year. So we thought today that we would talk about some of the visuals and images and we we got some excellent feedback from one of our listeners. So JJ, do you want to talk a bit about that?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, absolutely. So, you know, when we were starting to get ready to do this episode, we put the word out letting people know that, that we were not only doing this episode, but we wanted input from those who celebrate the Spring Festival. And we got some wonderful help from our friend, Yang. Yang spread the word amongst some of her friends, she gathered personal stories. She told us about her traditions and even forwarded some links to relevant artworks and museum programs. It was it was just lovely. I was really quite touched. And so in doing my research, I used her collected stories and those resources, both to kind of get into the proper celebratory headspace. And also as the launching point for my research and you know, I say getting into the celebratory headspace because it's kind of needed this year, you need a bit of a lift, right? Like, it would have been phenomenal if we could have recorded this episode in Chinatown in Toronto's China Town, maybe at a banquet hall or go for some dim sum, right? Like, we could have been sitting at a table having some fried fish for prosperity, maybe some meatballs to symbolize togetherness, trays of dumpling, steamed bamboo baskets full of dumplings for wealth, or pan fried dumplings that are connected by lacy skirts of fried batter, maybe we could have had some long, glistening golden lo mein noodles with links of fried green onion to symbolize longevity, maybe had some Johnnie Walker Blue Label whiskey, and then--

Christine Malec:

Wait, wait!

JJ Hunt:

That's a thing! The Blue Label is important!

Christine Malec:

Okay...

JJ Hunt:

And then wed've gone out into the crowds for the parade. To see the lions dancing and watch the demonstrations from local martial arts schools. That would have been my top choice, but we didn't have that. And so it was so lovely of Yang to send us her stories and kind of get us in the mood a little bit so that we could describe this with the proper feeling and emotions behind us.

Christine Malec:

It really personalized it because other people's traditions are, you know, interesting, but they they can kind of lack emotional resonance, because they're not your own traditions. But she was lovely to include some of her own personal memories of getting the house ready and getting things ready. And it just, it brought me right into that festive holiday space. And so I really feel so much warmer and more authentic to talk about this now that i've you know, heard from someone who celebrates it and for whom it really does have have meaning. So what are the some of the most prominent visuals of the festival?

JJ Hunt:

So it's an important festival and it's it's important to remember that it's not just one day, right? Like often if you're going down to a Chinatown to celebrate you're maybe doing it on New Year's Eve or New Year's Day. But the Spring Festival is, is a big deal. It's a big time of year, right? So the festivities extend from New Year's Eve to the lantern festival, which is held on the 15th day of the new year. This is the new year in the Chinese calendar. So this year 2021, the year of the ox, New Year's Eve is on February 11, and lantern festivals on the 26th. And I should say like obviously China is a massive country, right? So the festivities, the foods, the traditions, they're going to look different from province to province, region to region. And besides there are Chinese communities all over the world. And as is often the case people who are living away from the homeland, they often celebrate more fervently than those who are back in the mother country. So local traditions ingredients Music and Art of the adopted country can make their way into celebrations. So all of this is to say that the descriptions we're going to be talking about today, they can't possibly reflect everyone's experience, right. And I would just invite listeners who have slightly different experiences, or different visuals in their, in their celebrations. Like, share them with us, I'd love to hear about it, maybe on Facebook or Twitter, that'd be great to have people sharing some of those descriptions from their own celebrations, that would be awesome.

Christine Malec:

So I understand that color plays a huge part?

JJ Hunt:

It really does. So the Spring Festival colors are red and gold, red and gold are everywhere. Red symbolizes good fortune and joy. And gold symbolizes wealth and prosperity. So red and gold. Typically red is the primary color. Gold is for the accent color. And it's everywhere, red and gold banners, lanterns, clothing cards on envelopes, paper decorations, they're everywhere.

Christine Malec:

I think of a lantern as a metal construct with a kerosene wikinut or something. So what is actually meant by a lantern in this context?

JJ Hunt:

So the red paper lanterns that you see, that are hanging all around Chinatowns all around the world, there are lots of different variations. But the standard red paper lantern is a red paper globe. Imagine a perfect ball, a perfect sphere, that is maybe squished a little bit from the top and bottom, so it's a little bit more bulbous around the center and flat at the top and bottom. That's the standard shape of the red paper lantern. And then it's ribbed, so these thin ribs of maybe sticks or wire, they go from the top of the lantern around to the bottom, all the way around the outside. And this kind of makes them look a little bit like pumpkins with these ribs that go from top to bottom. There's often a cap of gold on the top, and maybe a gold ring at the bottom. There's quite likely a gold string with a traditional knot and tassel dangling from the bottom of the lantern. And maybe there are printed decorations on the sides. I've seen traditional designs, written characters, floral patterns, even cartoon-like drawings of important historical figures. And in the daytime, maybe they're not lit up, but at night they're illuminated from within. There's a there's a warm golden light in there. So these glowing red lights are everywhere. These lanterns are strung across streets. I've seen them hanging from trees or front porches of houses. I've seen them in malls. They're, of course, the major symbol of the holiday so they're in art and in posters. And often if you're on a Chinatown main street, they'll be strung across the street from lamppost to lamppost. Often there'll be some banners strung across the street; again, red banners with shiny gold lettering on it from local businesses, welcoming you to the neighborhood. I've seen this in Toronto's Chinatown, in Vancouver, I was in Bangkok last year for the spring festival, and they had these banners strung across the street. And it's often one row of banners and then one row of lanterns, and then banners and then lanterns all the way up and down the main streets in Chinatown. They're really lovely.

Christine Malec:

When you say lanterns so I understand the outside, but is there an LED inside or something that makes it glow?

JJ Hunt:

They're like Christmas tree lights. You know, a string of lights with individual bulbs. And then these lanterns are surrounding that bulb. So little LED lights like that. Or sometimes there are no lights in them. If you're hanging them off your front porch, for example or off a tree, there may or may not actually be a light in there, it might just be the paper lantern itself.

Christine Malec:

How about dress? Is there a traditional dress?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, there are. My experience being at festivities in Chinatown's, there's a lot of red and gold clothing. I mean, it's just everywhere. And I think my understanding is that there's a tradition of buying and wearing new clothes for the new year to represent new beginnings, to represent the notion that this year will be more prosperous than last. So you buy new clothes. It's also a holiday so it's a time to splurge. So perhaps someone might get new socks or new shoes. I understand this is a this is a thing for kids to get new socks or new shoes. And then men and women are going to get dressed up a little bit, even just to go out for a meal, or as part of the celebrations, or to go to a parade, or to go to someone's house. So perhaps the men and women might wear a new red Tang suit. So this is like a silky top with a with a short stand up collar. Sometimes people call this a mandarin collar or even a Mao collar. It's just a short stiff collar with no fold in it. And the Tang suit top has wide loose cuffs. And these cuffs are in a complimentary fabric. So often you'll have a red Tang suit jacket. And the cuff is in blacks and golds. Maybe there'll be intricate patterns on the cuff for like floral patterns and whatnot. And then they're buttoned all the way down the front with knotted cord. And it's very distinctive knotting or buttoning system. So basically you have two lengths of cord, one on either side of the garment. And if it's a red garment, then there probably going to be in an offset color of black or gold. On one side, the cord ends in a little loop. And on the other side it ends in a very precise knot. And of course you just slip the knot into the loop and that's how the the garment is closed. So when all of these are done up all the way up and down the front of the garment. It ends up kind of looking like a column of thick stitches. It's very distinctive. And for women, maybe you're going to wear a traditional dress, right this is a great opportunity to go into the closet and get that traditional dress set that you only have an opportunity to wear a few times a year. These are often form fitting dresses, again with a short stand up color. I've seen variations of different cuts of dresses with cap sleeves with long sleeves. Again, a lot of red dresses that are embroidered with maybe a floral pattern in gold, or sometimes it's a red fitted dress and there's a guest silky layer on top that has some gold elements to it. The thing is even if you're not wearing traditional clothing even if you're just like in a you know t-shirts or parka or whatever, red and gold is still the color of the day, red t-shirts, red baseball caps, red parkas, if you scan the crowd at one of these celebrations, you will see a ton of red and gold clothing.

Christine Malec:

Nice.

JJ Hunt:

The other red and gold you see a lot of is red paper products; red and gold decorations in people's houses or on businesses. Or red envelopes and red packets that are used for for gifts of money. These red envelopes are everywhere. I was in a store in Vancouver last year leading up to the holiday. It was just a drugstore, but if you spent $10 or more, you got a little package of red envelopes that you could you use, this was their promotion. They're everywhere. And these little red envelopes can be very simple. Just a red envelope usually opened on the end, often shiny red paper adorned with gold, maybe some silver or black lettering. Or they can be very ornate with layers of cutouts on top with embossed gold lettering, maybe some actual gold leaf artwork. And people decorate their homes, their doorways and businesses with Fai Chun. Fai Chun are messages of positivity, warm wishes, idioms, blessings, not unlike the banners that are hung across the street in terms of messaging, but Fai Chun are specifically rectangular panels or squares of red paper. The squares might be turned on their corners, so they're like a diamond shape. More traditional message might be done on strips of red cloth that are embroidered with gold lettering. You'll often find the inverted character Fu, meaning happiness, that's a classic Fai Chun message that would be hung on a door or beside a door. Or you can also buy mass produced Fai Chun. So this is shiny, bright red paper with the ornate gold lettering, but you buy it from the dollar store or whatever. And if calligraphy is your thing, you can paint your own. So people will render their characters in very smooth brush strokes of jet black ink, again on red paper, or maybe they'll paint some couplets. These are pairs of lines of poetry, and they're often hand-painted calligraphy hanging vertically beside doorways. And these are things to welcome you as you're coming into a house as you're going from room to room. I've also seen Door Gods. These are woodblock prints of Guardian figures, warrior gods in full ornamental regalia with angry knit brows and long beards and pointed mustaches. And these woodblock prints are printed on very fine paper and hung on the outer door. To protect those who are inside from evil forces, and sometimes they're done with many, many layers of color, and very fine lines carved out of the woodblocks to create a great deal of detail in these woodblock prints. There are also paper cuttings, which are really intricate paper silhouettes. So this is a traditional art form, cutting paper into symbolic patterns, sometimes Chinese characters, and sometimes they're representational, like lanterns and so forth. And again, cut from red paper. You put them in the window so that when light shines in, it casts extraordinary shadows on the floors and walls inside. Red and gold, the undisputed colors of the holiday.

Christine Malec:

I know that lions and dragons figure highly in some of the imagery, what can you say about those?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, they're really the lions and the dragon dances. Those are the the big Spring Festival showstoppers. I mean, aside from the fireworks! We should, I think, just do a whole episode on fireworks sometime because that would be fascinating.

Christine Malec:

Um hmmm.

JJ Hunt:

But for the spring festival, the lion dances the dragons, those are, you know, big events. The lions tend to be two person costumes. So one person stands inside the head portion, and the other person controls the hind quarters. So the head of the costume, it covers the person's entire head and torso, but their legs are sticking out. So that's the front legs of the lion. And the heads. You know, these are often made out of paper mache or sometimes carved foam, like carved styrofoam, so they're they're solid, they're more rigid, and these costume heads have very large eyes and they often blink. They've got mechanisms inside that the puppeteer can pull some strings and make the eyes blink. Very wide mouths, often the lower jaw is hanging open, it's a flap, so it can also be opened and closed. And the eyes are often encircled with long lengths of faux-fur, kind of like feather boas, that are wrapped around the eyes and maybe around the mouth. Sometimes they look like a mustache on on the top of the lion's mouth. Very bright colors. Again, reds and golds, but also purples and yellows with with hints of green, sometimes they're almost neon colors. Extremely bright. And they're bedecked in what look like large jewels. They're not real jewels, but they're huge, large jewel-like objects of bright paints and very intricate paint jobs. And then hanging down the back of the neck of this of this head, this lion head, is a decorated sheet of fabric. And it's often got wavy lines of matching for further the same color as the full for around the eyes. And that that that decorated sheet of fabric covers the person operating the hind quarters. And so again, it goes over their body their stooped over in the back, it covers their body and their legs are or the back legs of the lion. So both operators have their legs exposed. And so they were really wild, loose pants that match the lion's body. And the only thing that looks out of place are their running shoes. They're always wearing running shoes. Because these

Christine Malec:

Ha ha ha! lions dance! They really dance! The Lions are very playful. They're mischievious characters, and they're sometimes quite daring. So they bounce, they leap. And sometimes they kind of have little play fights together, or they interact with the crowd. And I've seen some amazing acrobatics. I've seen the person who's in the head, the front person, will leap really high into the air and the partner behind will hoist them onto their shoulders, so that it looks like the lion is rearing up on its hind legs. Oooh!

JJ Hunt:

Yeah. And then they do these really cool balancing displays. So they'll use a platform with pedestals of various heights on it. And a lion or two will jump up onto these pedestals and leap from one pedestal to the other, sometimes on two legs, sometimes on four, sometimes on one! And I've also seen them climb onto a giant rolling ball, like a lion in a circus show? You know, like a real lion in a circus show where the lion tamer would get the lion to kind of walk back and forth on a giant rolling ball? I've seen the same thing in a Sring Festival situation too. So that's the lions; two people in costumes, inside the costume. And they're really playful, mischievious, and interacting with the crowd. Those are the lions.

Christine Malec:

Wow. Just for fun I flicked on a video to get the soundscape, and the drumming is amazing! There's some really energetic drumming, so if you're interested in rhythm, it's interesting to check out a video just for that. Talk dragons.

JJ Hunt:

Oh, the dragons. So the dragons are actually more like puppets, not so much costumes, so no one is inside the head of the dragon or the body of the dragon. The Dragons are supported by long poles. So the operators stand underneath with long sections of wooden pole pointing straight up, and they are holding on to different parts of the dragon. And these are, these are snake like dragons long, long, long dragons. Their heads are similar to the lions in that they're made of decorated paper mache. And then they have long fabric bodies, sometimes open but more often closed like a tube of fabric. So the faces of these dragons, they have longer chins than the lions, with like a little bit of frill or beard hanging down underneath. Often they've got big teeth, maybe out of Styrofoam or out of cloth, and big open mouths. So you can really see all of the teeth sticking out. Big hooded eyes, but not as big as the lions eyes, and very vibrant colors. Again, incredibly vibrant. And sometimes there are flames out the side on the side of the dragon's face, as if a dragon is flying through the air breathing fire and it's blowing back on either side of the face. Really very dramatic. And the body itself, the long tube of fabric might have pattern scales all the way down the body. Maybe there's a fin in a matching color all the way down the spine. They're really quite beautiful, but also a little bit scary. Like if you just look at the face, the expression is a little bit vicious.

Christine Malec:

This is one thing I wanted to ask. Clearly these are festive and fun and playful and trickster-ish. But is there an element of menace when you look at the lions or the dragons?

JJ Hunt:

If you were to look at these faces out of context, then yes, they would be kind of menacing, they would be kind of scary. But they're so celebratory, the movements are so fun and playful, that in that context... I would say only a

Christine Malec:

Oh! little kid would be actually be scared of these costumes. The expressions on the dragons in particular, with the bared fangs, the shapes of the eyes, the flames coming out the side, there is a little bit of that in the design. But you know, the bright colors, the dancing, you wouldn't be scared for for very ong. They're really quite fun and playful. And the dragons, these are dancing dragons as we l. And they're really long. The onger the dragon, the more pr sperity and good fortune is brought to the celebration. So usually, a good length dragon, a fairly long dragon, might be 80 feet long. And that's anned by a crew of that's perated by crew of like 9, 13 or 15 performers, it's got t be an odd numbered crew. And

JJ Hunt:

That's like three and a half miles long! 3000 hey will often parade down the treet holding their poles with ne person stations, you know, w atever every 10 or 15 feet dep nding on how long the dragon is. And with their section on a ole and as they walk, they m ve their poles up and down, u and down. So you've got this undulating body of a dragon that dips between the long wooden oles. The longest dancing dr gon in the world, accordi g to the Guinness Book of Wor d Records, was built in 2012 in arkham, Ontario. And it was 5.5 ilometers long! participants were required to hold it up by the poles. I saw some pictures of this, some videos. I mean, it's just extraordinary. A golden yellow dragon with fins running along the top and bottom, curved yellow horns blue and silver flames at the side of the head. When I read about it I was like "Did they have to get one long stretch of road and just march the thing five and a half K?"

Christine Malec:

Wow.

JJ Hunt:

it's huge. In fact what they did was, they presented it in two connected empty parking lots. So the first parking lot had the head and several lengths of the body that kind of doubled

Christine Malec:

Heh heh heh. back on itself. And that was where the crowd gathered. So big crowd in this parking lot filling up the parking lot with the with the head dancing and some folding back-and-forth lengths of the body. But then the body cuts across a walkway into a second empty parking lot, and it is full with row after row after row of Dragon body. The body would go all the way across the parking lot, double back, all the way across, double back, over and over and ove again. It was so big they couldn't walk it anywhere. So they had a guy on a microphone ho would give them all irections. Everyone had been ass gned a number, either one or t o. And when he would shout "On !" all the people who had been g ven the number one would raise t eir poles, and then he would s out "Two!" and the people numbe ed two would raise their poles and the number ones would lower hem. That's how they made it ance; up and down, up and down. t's awesome. The overhead pic ures make it look like a parkin lot full of really long, wavy golden pasta noodles,

JJ Hunt:

Because it's just so it's packed. It's really crazy.

Christine Malec:

When you see a you know, a not five kilometer long dragon going down the street. Does it make...? I guess I'm trying to picture how the participants are manipulating the poles. And so what's the effective movement if you're, I don't know half a block away or something and seeing it go by. What would the dragon look like in terms of how it's moving.

JJ Hunt:

So if the dragon is kind of just being paraded down the center of a street as part of a festival, which is often the way it is. The parade at a lot of these things is just the animals walking up and down the street. And so the dragon, you can imagine 13 people with their poles, they are usually wearing some kind of T shirt that says what group they're with, and maybe some some of these puffy pants that are not dissimilar to the lion pants. But they're just walking along, and as they're walking along, they're raising their poles up and down, up and down. And what that looks like is waves. Because the the dragon body dips between the poles naturally, as they as they lift their poles up and down, it really looks like a rolling surf. That's the movement of the of the dragon as it goes up and down. The person who's operating the head might be moving it from side to side so there's a slithering motion. Maybe interacting with the crowd a little bit. When there's a performance moment, because after a parade, they will often be a performance. And the performances for these dancing dragons are really something because they have to be very coordinated. It's a very choreographed dance routine. And the dances are very... it's a lot of serpentine movements, right? Snake-like movements. So the operators move and walk in various patterns, and they raise and lower their poles in a syncronized way to make the dragon slither across the sky. The dragon will fold back in on itself into knots, and then un-knot themselves, and then the dragons will spin or maybe corkscrew and dip and roll. It's really quite elegant. There's a fluidity to these puppets being manipulated by, again, maybe 15 people? It takes a lot of coordination. I saw a video I think it was in Shanghai with a group that performs with illuminated dragons at night. So the dragons are lined inside with LED lights that glow and change colors. twist and turn and dive very cool. I even saw one that had some sort of fireworks in the mouth so it would spit these fireworks out.

Christine Malec:

Oh my god!

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, super cool.

Christine Malec:

That's really so cool. That was so illuminating. Oh, see what I did there? That was a great pun. So Happy New Year to all of our our Asian listeners and a happy and prosperous new year to all of you. We love making this podcast. If you love hearing it. Perhaps you'll consider supporting its creation and development by becoming a patron. We've set up a Patreon page to help cover the costs of putting this show together. You can contribute as a listener or as a sponsor to help ensure that accessible and entertaining journalism continues to reach our community. Visit patreon.com slash talk description to me. That's pa t ar e o n.com slash talk description to me have feedback or suggestions of what you'd like to hear about here's how to get in touch with us. Our email address is top description to [email protected] Our Facebook page is called talk description to me. Our website is talk description to me.com and you can follow us on Twitter at talk description.

Thank you Yang!
Red and Gold
Dancing Lions
Dragons