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Lunar New Year celebration hits Asia Plaza with a bang (and a dancing lion)

February 9, 2019

Lunar New Year celebration hits Asia Plaza with a bang (and a dancing lion)

CLEVELAND, Ohio - “Does anyone here have a light?” a man asked the crowd of people at Asia Plaza.

Within moments, the sound of firecrackers going boom-boom-boom jarred the crowd and a cloud of smoke filled the air. Out of that smoke lunged a lion – dancing spastically, with the kind of wild enthusiasm that could signal only one thing.

Bring on the Year of the Pig.

On Saturday, a crowd of Notheast Ohioans flocked to the Payne Avenue mall to celebrate Lunar New Year and indulge in what has become an annual tradition. For 30 years, Asia Plaza, which anchors AsiaTown, has been hosting celebrations that mark, yes, the arrival of the New Year, but also the vibrant life of this Cleveland neighborhood.

“This mall and this neighborhood and the New Year celebrations have brought people downtown for years, even as other places in downtown were closing,” said George Kwan, of the Kwan Lion Dance Team, as he arrived at Asia Plaza. “It’s an honor to be part of this celebration of Chinese culture and a longtime Cleveland tradition.”

For 39 years, the 15-member family performance troupe has been central to area Lunar New Year celebrations. Saturday’s ringing in of the Year of the Pig was no different.

The rambunctious, noisy lion dance paraded throughout Asia Plaza, beginning with its largest tenant, Li Wah Restaurant, a Chinese restaurant renowned for its dim sum. On this day, the lion had an appetite for heads of lettuce, hung from the ceiling by tenants of the mall.

“We hang lettuce outside our businesses to bring us money in the New Year,” said Carol Ruan, owner of R & R Gift Shop. “These celebrations are about bringing people good fortune.”

And, of course, entertainment.

Tradition stipulates that the lion, which is manned by two people, reach up and snatch offerings of lettuce and red envelopes that are filled with money.

Saturday’s celebration was more than a money grab; it was a spirited spectacle loaded with playful interaction with the crowd. The lion teased and taunted attendees as members of the Kwan troupe filled the mall with a joyful, rhythmic cacophony of banging kettle drums and clanging cymbals.

It also deftly snaked through the narrow aisles of Asia Plaza’s gift shops. As it entered Sisters Gift Shop, the dance looked like a bull-in-a-china-shop scenario in the making.

But no: Not a single ceramic dragon or waving cat or holiday knick-knack was harmed in the making of this performance.

Children stood on their tippy-toes, staring into shop windows to admire the rambunctious moves of the colorful lion.

Fran DiDonato, of Cleveland, brought her daughter, 3, and son, 6, to the event – to marvel at the sounds and sights, but also to experience something broader going on in the city.

“I’ve come for years and I want to expose my kids to other cultures,” she said. “This marks a new start for people in a new year – and, you know, it’s also just really cool.”