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Lions and dragons take to the streets for Chinese New Year

It may be the Year of the Pig in the Chinese lunar calendar, but for members of the Southern Oregon Chinese Cultural Association, what makes the start of this year special is a 61-foot-long dragon.

The dragon will make its Oregon debut at 10 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 9, in a parade that is part of Jacksonville’s annual Chinese New Year celebration.

Purchased in Foshan City, China, for San Francisco festivities in 2000, after years in hibernation, the dragon made its way to Medford, where it was dubbed The Mighty One by SOCCA board member Jeresa Hren.

The dragon is a gift from David Lei, vice chairman of San Francisco’s Chinese American Community Foundation, and Harlan Wong, San Francisco Chinese New Year Festival and Parade director. Lei says that the dragon is important at the start of a new year because of its power.

“The Chinese were aware of the power of diversity,” he says in a telephone interview. “The dragon is the only animal in the Chinese zodiac that is mythological. They constructed it by taking the good parts of many different actual animals. This is where its power comes from — eyes of a rabbit, talons of an eagle, legs of a tiger, body and scales of a serpent, whiskers of a catfish, mouth of a camel, and antlers of a deer.”

It is also important, he says, because “in order to use the dragon a community has to come together. You can’t perform it on your own.”

The Southern Oregon community embraces more than just the people needed to manipulate the dragon. Following The Mighty One’s journey by truck to Medford, SOCCA board member Kat Greene was enlisted to spruce him up for his Oregon performance.

“When we got it all the fur was missing,” Greene recalls. “Bugs or vermin had eaten it all. There were holes and burn marks. So when it got here we cleaned it and patched up all the holes and sewed it back together.”

Some of the fabric needed to be replaced and much of the bead trim and sequins required refurbishing. But the biggest challenge, Greene says, was the “guts” of the dragon.

“The main thing that we had to do was these barrels . . . We have 12 of these barrels to hold up the body. They get laid into a blanket. It’s really heavy. It’s like a sleeping bag. There are strings underneath it that get tied to the barrel.”

Resembling frames of wine kegs, the barrels are made of bamboo and are placed at intervals under the cloth that forms the dragon’s body. Each has a pole connected to it, which is where more people enter the picture. Fourteen are needed, one to support each pole, and one each to support the head and tail. All must work together to make the dragon’s body arc up and down and weave from side to side as it advances down the street.

Helping to bring The Mighty One back to life has special meaning for Greene, who is a third-generation Chinese American.

“Because I’m 61, and the dragon is 61 feet long, it feels kind of auspicious. It’s all the things you experience as a Chinese growing up. ... You’re growing up in a culture where your family is Chinese but you’re living in an American culture. You’re kind of having to juggle the two.

“For me it wasn’t until I actually got into college, . . and suddenly there were all these Chinese people that you never really meet. ... That was when I kind of really looked at my identity as a Chinese American.”

When SOCCA asked her if she was willing to restore the dragon, Greene replied, “Absolutely! That would be so much fun.” And it is a way for her to forge a bridge between her heritage culture and those of others.

Everyone can experience many aspects of Chinese culture at the Jacksonville event, which includes the parade, special foods, exhibits, a magic show, lectures about the role early Chinese immigrants played in Southern Oregon, and special things for children to do. Activities, most of which are free, go from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

For schedule and event location details, see soccachinesenewyear.org, or email soccac-ny@gmail.com.

The mélange of people who make the lions and dragons cavort down the street, as well as others involved in the Jacksonville celebration, includes individuals of Chinese heritage as well as those from other backgrounds, men and women, and children from age 6 1/2 to senior citizens.

Chinese New Year is traditionally filled with special activities and symbolism. It’s a time to “wipe last year clean, wear new clothes, and eat good food,” says Meiwen Richards, SOCCA board member, during a practice session for the parade.

The Mighty One will be joined by an Oregon Shakespeare Festival dragon and one on loan from Portland lion and dragon dance master Wally Chow, as well as several local lions. But don’t be afraid of the animals.

As he teaches parade participants how to enliven them, Chow, a volunteer and member of the Northwest Dragon & Lion Dance Association, reminds his students, “Your job is to please the crowd. Make them happy. You don’t want to scare them.”

Katherine (Kathy) Greene is working to refurbish this 61-foot dragon puppet. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune