Monday, February 3, 2014

Lions and Dragons, oh my! - São Paulo

The white lion. His tail wags and eyelids wink.

One of my sons takes Chinese class after school once a week. Yes, he is only 7 years old and I don't know how much of this he will retain, but he loves it and it's taught by a friend of mine. So, when we were invited to go with this teacher and another friend's family to Chinese New Year celebrations in São Paulo, we immediately said yes.

The celebrations were over two days and located in the neighborhood of Liberdade, a place I really need to visit more often. Liberdade is known as the Japanese neighborhood, and has the largest concentration of people of Japanese descent in the city. And, if you didn't already know it, São Paulo has the biggest "colony" of Japanese outside of Japan. Cool. It also has other Asian stores and some of the best Chinese food in the city.

This past month has been the hottest month on record in São Paulo, and one family quickly gave up on the outing. But we are hardcore. Temperatures that afternoon were to reach 95F/35C. 

My teacher friend and I decided to metro in and met at the Faria Lima station on the yellow line. I only specify this because the yellow line is the youngest line in São Paulo and it is "beleza" or a beauty. Driverless cars, clean, new, flashy light above the train door exit to tell you at which station you have arrived.  We had to switch in Luz to the blue line. The Blue Line, poor thing, is the first metro line of São Paulo, and indeed the first one built in Brazil, and was inaugurated in the early 1970s. And it shows--dark stations, crappy train cars. 

We packed ourselves in with people coming from the intracity bus station, with bicyclists and bicycles from the morning's Bike Tour event, and the usual collection of riff raff and non-riff raff. By the way, I count myself as riff-raff.

Open Sesame! Our three lion magnets getting on the metro-oh-oh!
When we got to Liberdade, the place was packed. I was alone with the 7 year old twins that day and I was quite stressed out hanging on to them. We met up with our South African friends and went to find ourselves a place to save for the passing Dragon dance scheduled one hour from then. The one dad held down the kids (not literally) and the places (literally) while the moms went in search of tasty treats for the 3 boys and 1 girl. Needless to say that the very second we leave the house in the morning, my kids are starrrrrrving. We got some meat, fish and shrimp on a stick. That is a very bad translation.

We were about 30 feet from the main stage, and when we arrived, there was a calligraphy demonstration and then a guy trying to teach us all a bit of Chinese. I will never again forget the word for horse as yelled by 500 people "mah". Not "maaaaaaaaah". Not "maaaaaannnhhhh". My son who is taking Chinese loves this particular word so I had actually known it before I got there but by the end of the teaching session, we were both laughing too hard to get the word right.

Then came bizarreness. As we waited for the dragons, a cover band came up with a woman lead singer. They commenced to serenade us with such Chinese classics as "Come Together" by the Beatles, "Welcome to the Jungle" by whatever those guys names are, "Take on Me" by a-ha (I am not kidding, this was the actual playlist. So weird!) and my personal favorite "Highway to Hell" by AC/DC. At a Chinese New Year celebration? Did someone cancel last minute? Did the organizers forget to listen to the demo tape? Ear-splitting.

And so we waited and waited. We finally could see the dragons way down the street. There was one, or was that a mirage and there were two? Does anyone remember that scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where the attacking army is coming and coming but never gets there? They seem to always be in the same place and then after a looooonnnnnngggg time, they are right there killing you. The dragons were coming towards us for about an hour, and then suddenly they were there and then suddenly they were gone!

11:30. Dragon waaaaaaay down the street
12:00 Dragon still too far way to see well (it's the gold thing)

Aggh! 12:15 Dragon on top of us! Photo credit to my friend Michelle
The best news is finally the Beatles/AC-DC/ a-ha cover band shut up so we could concentrate on the good stuff. Two dragons came first, and then some drummers and then came the lion dance. I had a feeling that our three boys were going to come in for some attention. My friend's son is Filipino/Chinese and was wearing a cute Chinese shirt, one of my twins is bright blonde and the other attracts attention with his green eyes. So it surprised me not at all when they got it.

But first, does everyone know what is a dragon dance? I didn't. Not really. Dragons in Chinese tradition are linked to good luck, wisdom and long life. I also see that they are linked to "life-giving rains" which might explain why we finally got about a millimeter of rain late in the afternoon (after I was already at a superbowl party and not in Liberdade anymore). So dragon dances are performed at New Year to scare away evil spirits. They follow a ball of wisdom to the accompaniment of drums. The two dragons swirling and "flying" were the highlight of the day.

Or were they? Then came the "cute" lions made up of one person in the front and one in the back. Tradition is that these also bring good luck. The dancers were fantastic, and you can only imagine how they must have been suffering in the heat, jumping around under giant costumes. Two of the lions passed by without taking any notice of the kids. The third, a gorgeous white and blue and pink one, stopped at our three boys, winked his giant eyes three times, put his "paw" (clad in black trainers) on the cord and charmed us all. As he walked on, he shook his head, and wagged his tail. It was enchanting.

Nope, does not see the kids

Also not seeing the kids
BINGO! The white lion spies the three kids

He winks three times

And shows the kids his "paw"
The kids were in love. With a large white lion with black trainers. A red lion also stopped by for a visit and flapped its lashes at them, then all the lions and dragons ended up on the stage.

We were maxxed out on heat and crowds so we headed over for lunch at the one and only Chi Fu. But that's a blog for tomorrow.

Happy Year of the Horse!

Source for Lion Dance and Dragon Dance information:


  1. Ha ha ha! I loved your description of the cover band. We heard them before we saw them (they were singing 'Sweet Child o' Mine' at the time) and my wife's comment was "I hope she's pretty because she can't sing!" :D

    Looking forward to hearing about Chi Fu - we also got a bit overheated and went to eat down the road at Aska. It was incredible! And R$15 for the best ramen I've had in my life - loved it!

    1. Ack! You're right--it was "Sweet Child o' Mine" not Welcome to the Jungle. Brain is fried. Literally. I couldn't see if she was pretty but she did have on a very short skirt which might have helped? I tried not to look. I tried not to encourage them in any way.

      That's funny on Aska--we came close to going there but kids were not moving more than across the street. That is on my list. Chi Fu was an experience...great food, but slow service. Things moved faster when my kids started fishing the carps from the little pond up front...

    2. Ha ha! Nice tactic with the kids/carps! :)

      You will *not* be disappointed with Aska, though you may have to wait if you go at a busy time. We put our names on the list, then went off to do some shopping and came back 30 mins later. Worked out perfectly.

  2. Thanks for writing this piece! It was a fun day despite the heat, the waiting and the surreal playlist. I think you should wait until you have justifiably tried a full course meal at Chi Fu before you write that blog. You haven't had the eel, the scallops, the crabs, the duck, the oysters, etc, etc, etc... And next time we go, I will still self-serve instead of waiting for the waitresses. ;)