Celebrating Lunar New Year
Lion Dance. Photo: Lori Espinel
CONTRIBUTOR: Pat Jasper, Director of Folklife + Civic Engagement
Over the course of several years, HAA’s Folklife + Traditional Arts program worked on a project to document long-lived celebrations that occur in Houston during the winter months. So, on the evening of Wednesday, February 18, 2015, after a quick nap, I set out to spend Lunar New Year at Tao Chew Taoist temple in Southwest Houston. In dividing up our duties, my colleague Angel Quesada and I parceled out responsibility for different but sister temples. Instead of my going to Teen How temple on Delano Street, I drove the 15 or so miles to 10600 Turtlewood Drive to Teo Chew. They both honor and serve the Taoist tradition in Houston, but Teo Chew is much newer, and I had visited it only for the first time a week before.
Teen How, however, holds a special place in my heart (and even more so, in the hearts of longtime Chinese and Vietnamese residents of Houston) because it was the first Taoist temple built here. Because Taoism has a strong folk component, absorbing lots of influences into its more official liturgy, it has a welcoming feel to individuals from throughout China and Southeast Asia. Inaugurated in December 1987, Teen How became a kind of refuge for many new arrivals, especially those from Vietnam. And it was a welcome relief to the continually growing Chinese community, after the prolonged suppression of religion many experienced throughout the 20th century. I visited Teen How the first time not long after it opened, and at that time there was a temple master who practiced exquisite calligraphy and created beautiful small scrolls for visitors in exchange for a donation to the temple. I left there that first time with one in my hand.
With the Folklife program, our work is ethnographic in character. Our goal was to spend the entire evening starting at 11 p.m. at each of the temples, documenting with video and photos and notating all of the activities, rituals and orchestrated activities. As part of seeking permission to do so, we had already made good contacts in advance at the temples for follow-up interviews, and we expanded the list as we met people there to celebrate the coming New Year and commemorate the departing one. Fruit; long, leafy, fresh bamboo shoots; and ringing bells – the implements and symbols of celebrating the fresh start that the New Year evokes – were everywhere. Red shiny toys like noisemakers, whirligigs and miniature lion heads were on sale just inside the temple doors. Throughout the night, streams of people filled the temple. The legendary figures and beloved deities that populate all the corners of the temple were variously venerated and petitioned with a single slender spine of incense or a blazing two foot long, two-fisted bundle.
Like most Houstonians, I have run in and out of Asian businesses and temples and homes during Lunar New Year, but never really stopped to absorb the full unveiling of the holiday. And though one evening is by no means that, it was exciting to a have fuller, smokier, time-lapse experience of it in one setting over hours. At 11 straight up, the Teo Chew Lion Dance troop began performing, taking the crowd to midnight with Lion Dances, martial arts displays, traditional theatrics and the Dragon Dance performance for which it is so well known.
By the end, I smelled like an incinerator, making the crisp evening air a refreshing and auspicious counterpoint. As I ventured out of the temple for the last time, leaving Loriana the photographer to return and make her own private offering, I knew how I would end this evening. Back in my car again at 2 a.m. and cruising down 59, I exited on Polk. A few blocks down was Delano, and a few more, the blazing lanterns of Teen How. That late at night it was comparatively easy to park, and I was on the steps of the entryway in seconds. There stood a temple official, Xan Voung, greeting acquaintances and dear friends alike, reaching out to shake my hand. I was back in my neighborhood, back home in a sense. But I was also on my way, in partnership with colleagues and community people whose guidance we sought, to developing a portrait of a tradition that could be shared more fully with the city as a whole. This is a snapshot of the preparatory work we do in the HAA Folklife + Traditional Arts program because, in the short term and in the long run, we are not the experts, the community members are.