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Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, January 18, 2001

Lion Dance Troupe
Lions also protect characters from "Journey to the West."
The characters, from left, are known as the strong, crybaby
monk; the monkey king; the monk who became a god; the
wise old man; the s'kebei guy and the pig.

Dancing lessons

Children build character
as they learn the lion dance
to usher in 'Year of the Snake'

By Nadine Kam

A mischievous monkey, hot-headed pig and sleazy guy aren't exactly the kinds of characters you'd want your kids to emulate, but as part of the motley entourage of "Journey to the West" they have powerful lessons to teach.

The characters will come to life as Rodney "Kimo" Wong and his Lion Dance Troupe help to usher in the Year of the Snake during the annual Chinatown New Year celebration Saturday and Sunday.

Ten Chinese lions and more than 80 dancers will start the blessings at 10 a.m. beginning at Kekaulike Mall and parading throughout Chinatown, from King to Smith streets. To find them, follow the pounding drums, clash of cymbals and exploding firecrackers.

For about four hours, the troupe will snake its way through Chinatown, mingling with the crowd and bestowing blessings, sometimes stopping to stage a kung fu battle.

Characters in the parade are based on the Chinese tale "Journey to the West," which is as familiar in the East as Disney characters are in the West. The story is about a monk who -- through reincarnation and devoting each of his 10 lives to performing good deeds for others -- becomes a god. He journeys to the West, encountering hardships and an assortment of flawed characters, who by association and gentle teaching, change for the better.

Lion Dance Troupe
A monk who becomes a Buddha meets up with a
powerful lion offering luck and protection.

Wong is doing his best to live up to the monk's example. Through his kung fu school, Kimo Wong's Kung Fu and Lion Dance Association, he is sifu to 120 students seeking to match their master in martial arts, which entails more than mere physical ability.

"There's a philosophy behind it of patience and forgiveness," said Wong. Students must learn martial arts before they can participate in the lion dances and it's a select few who get to don the lion head during public events.

The heads cost $1,000 to $2,000 each and are usually used for a year, after which their spirits are released in a cremation ritual. A head can weigh 20 to 40 pounds, and in addition to having the balance and strength to support it, Wong said, "There's something you can see in the student's heart. When they go through the blessings, you can feel their character. You can't have someone who's hard-headed or a trouble maker."

Because Wong determines who's going to wear the head, he said, "Students will get jealous, but that's part of their learning. It's like the monkey trying to get the attention of the Buddha."

It generally takes three years for a student to progress from lion tail to head, though during practice, he might let some of the newer pupils try it.

"They get more fun out of it because sometimes practice can get boring. They don't realize that while they're holding it up they're developing their arms and legs, building strength in them."

During the weekend events, the costumed youths -- ages 7 to 21 -- will try their best to reflect their characters personalities. According to Wong, it won't be a stretch. He assigns the characters based on the children's and teens' personalities.

"I don't think they understand why I assign them certain roles, but as I talk to them about the character I teach indirectly. They learn from their own experience," he said.

"There's this 15-year-old who's just like the pig. One of his friends will call and say, 'Let's fight,' and he doesn't even ask why. He just goes and gets beat up. But it shows he's very loyal to his friends."

Wong's education started when he was 4, learning from his great grand-uncle who was a Shaolin priest who came to Hawaii from the Chungchan region of China.

At 16, Wong, who became known as "Kimo" -- it's better than Rodney because Rodney gets beat up -- started training with James Demiles, who was a student of Bruce Lee's in Washington in the 1960s, before he became an international martial arts star.

Wong started up his school in 1975 when he was 19. "At that time, the focus was on a more practical form of martial arts, hand-to-hand combat, full contact, heavy cardiovascular workouts. I had requests from students for the traditional Shaolin style, following the style of the tiger, dragon, leopard, snake and crane, and bringing in more of the philosophy of seeking one's self through discipline and meditation.

"What appears to be fighting skills, punching and kicking is really about becoming one with the flow of energy. In the art of combat, your mind has to be free of other thoughts, distractions. What appears to be physical is really internal."

For the past three years, Wong has returned to China frequently to bring kung fu back to its home.

"China wants the overseas Chinese to come back. They have a program they call 'Come back home butterfly.'

"When our grandparents migrated to America, it was because there were a lot of warring states, the Boxer Rebellion and all that. They took a lot of their knowledge of the arts away from China," Wong said.

"During the Cultural Revolution, a lot of the arts were suppressed, but the arts were preserved overseas. Now, I go and share ideas and they're really appreciative."

Wong said that martial arts did not lose as much as other forms because lion dances were still allowed during the Cultural Revolution, allowing the students to mask their kung fu training.

Today, kung fu is out in the open, but a sifu's motives remain hidden to those whose eyes are not yet open.

"Lion dance kung fu is a way to get kids off the streets and directed in another way," Wong said. "They think it's fighting, but I'm using it as a tool for peace."

Street noise

Bullet What: Chinatown New Year Lion Dance Blessing
Bullet Place: Starts at Kekaulike Mall, continuing to King and Smith streets
Bullet Times: 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Bullet Cost: Donations in exchange for blessings

More Lunar New
Year celebrations:

Liberty House:

Siu Lum Pai Kung Fu association will perform at 7:45 a.m. Saturday at the Kahala store, 9:45 a.m. Sunday at Windward Mall, 11:30 a.m. Sunday at Kailua, and 9:15 a.m. Jan. 27 at Pearlridge.

Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center Hibiscus Courtyard:

Lunar New Year celebration 5 to 9 p.m. Saturday, beginning with lion dancing by the Gee Yung International Martial Arts Dragon/Lion Dance Association. The group performs the dance on poles measuring 1 to 7 feet. There will also be Chinese folk dances performed by the Phoenix Dance Chamber, music by erhu master Benjamin Sun, acupuncture demonstrations and more lion dance and kung fu exhibitions by Kong's Siu Lum Pai Gung Fu Association. Free. Call 922-2299.

Wahiawa Shopping Center and Wahiawa Town Center:

Year of the Snake celebration 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. tomorrow. See the lion dance through the centers, beginning with a firecracker blessing in front of Goodfriend Chinese Kitchen in the Wahiawa Town Center. Get a free mahjong tile fortune reading from John Kealoha and pick up a lucky number in front of Longs for prize drawings. Free.

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