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Lion lessons

February 14, 2008
By RICK CHATENEVER, Maui Scene Editor
SMILE MORE in the coming year was the advice of martial arts master and Chinese lion dance leader Ben Seng Au in last week’s Maui Scene.

His words came in a story listing the places his lion dancers would be performing last weekend to ring in Chinese New Year, the Year of the Rat, at locations all over Maui.

Lion dances for Chinese New Year are a tradition on the island, part of the stew of all the ethnicities grouped under the convenient but misleading label, “Hawaiian culture.”

But Ben’s words have a way of saying more than you think they’re saying, and they echoed in my memory as I watched his lions take to the streets of Makawao last Saturday morning.

The “lions” are two-person teams — like horses in old vaudeville shows — inside gaudy costumes in jarring shades of pink, green, red, yellow and black. Their heads look less like actual lions than dragons, or mystical beings, or living cartoons, with pinwheel eyes surrounding corneas that light up.

They are a weird form of life, these Chinese lions. “Feeding them” currency stuffed into little red envelopes is said to bring good luck in the coming year ... not to mention, paying the bills for Au Shaolin’s Art Society members to make their annual, and eagerly anticipated, visits from their homes in Oahu every year.

Lion dancing is one of those increasingly rare throwbacks to Maui’s plantation past, when many different cultures worked together in the fields —just as they worked in their own camps and communities to maintain, share and perpetuate the traditions they had brought from their homes.

Their colorful rituals, originating from spots all over the planet, would make these tiny rocks in the middle of the Pacific Ocean pulse to a rhythm unlike anywhere else.

Drums, cymbals and firecrackers added adrenaline to that rhythm as the lions hit Makawao. Ben, radiating authority in his traditional, gold-accented Chinese gown that he refers to as his “dress,” served as traffic cop for the Dodge Ram pickups and horse trailers that are far more usual sights than neon-hued Chinese lions in this Upcountry cowboy town.

Playing a lion requires exquisite coordination from both ends. The performers inside the costumes are, in fact, martial arts students of Au’s Shaolin Academy. Martial arts demonstrations are integral parts of lion dance performances, and the troupe was named among the top 10 in the U.S. last year.

Lion dances are mesmerizing, hypnotic and energizing. This stems, I think, from the energy, which is, after all, just another way of saying the life force they unleash. The lions, and the drums and the cymbals tap into some primal place in us. This is one more form of martial art — not for combat, not for healing, not for tranquility — but to get our mojos going, revved up for a new year.

That new year is still a blank slate, for us to do with as we will. But the lions offer a happy and hopeful alternative to getting drunk, making some resolutions we know we won’t keep, and dropping a big ball on Times Square.

New years are a time to wipe one slate clean and prepare to paint a masterpiece on the next one.

It’s funny how putting on the lion costumes transforms the people inside. Once the performers — including some real young martial arts students — are inside the suits, the lions come to life. No matter how artificial and garish the masks may appear, the lions become actual animals, preening, prancing, each full of its own personality.

The lions strutted and roamed and explored the sleepy junction that marks beautiful downtown Makawao. One lion had an extra set of little legs —a tiny girl staying close to her lion-dancer mommy in the back half of the suit. Other members of the troupe guided the lions, giving instructions and directions to make up for the limited visibility inside the masks, like trainers in a circus.

The lions moved into the crowds filling the sidewalks. Their wild faces, along with the firecrackers and the insistent drum beat, initially inspired fear, caution at least, for the babies and youngest kids in the crowd.

But as the lions went down on knee level, the kids quickly came around. It wasn’t long before they were thronging around the lions, patting their backs, holding on to their wagging tales, loving them like pets.

Everyone — everyone — in the crowd was smiling.

Just as the king of the beasts had advised.

Looks like it’s going to be a good year.

• Contact Rick Chatenever at

Article Photos

The lion tamers came in all shapes and sizes when the lion dancers of Au’s Shaolin Arts Society rang in Chinese New Year in Makawao last Saturday.

The Maui News / RICK CHATENEVER photos



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