Baltimore's Chinese community welcomes Year of the Mah-Lo-the monkey


Raymond Lee offered the lion's head to his brother, Arthur.

"No, I don't want the head," Arthur said.

The 15-pound, bearded Chinese carnivore coyly batted its green eyes and wiggled its red ears.

"He's older. He's supposed to take the head," Raymond explained.

Arthur grabbed the fur-and-silver trimmed tail.

"It's always that way," said Raymond. "You know: Respect your elders."

Yesterday, as they have done yearly for a quarter-century, the Lee brothers slipped on a lion's head of papier-mache, cane and wood, climbed under a 9-foot plume of fuchsia-and-orange striped silk, and ushered in the Chinese New Year with the traditional dance of the "mo tze." It was the highlight of the annual festival sponsored by Grace and St. Peter's Episcopal Church and held at the Waxter Center downtown.

A three-lion event, the Lee brothers joined five Yaus, the He family, two Hungs and several other dancers to ward off evil spirits and bring luck in this, the Year of the Mah-Lo or Monkey. The New Year actually begins tomorrow.

"We got asked to perform for 'Good Morning, America,' " said Arthur Lee, a stocky, bespectacled 36-year-old engineer for NASA. "But we turned them down. You're talking about getting 15 [guys] out before 6 o'clock in the morning?"

Anyway, said the elder Lee, "We're not in this for the limelight."

So why do it? It gets hot under that lion's head. Plus your arms ache. If you're the tail, you can wind up with a sore back. Or split pants. When the dance moves onto the street, people throw fire crackers at you. Why keep at it?

"Culture," said Arthur Lee. "To let people understand there is a Chinese community here in Baltimore, that we're still part of the city of Baltimore. Mainly for that and to be supportive of the church."

Arthur Lee danced his first lion steps when he was no bigger than a Chinese kettle drum. Lillian Lee Kim, the grande dame of the Grace and St. Peter's annual event, drafted him. As older brothers are apt to do, Arthur drafted Raymond several years later.

"It wasn't Ma telling us to do this," said Arthur Lee. "It was Mrs. Kim."

They were among children of immigrants who attended Sunday Chinese language school at Grace and St. Peter's, the Park Avenue church that has served the Chinese community since at least 1925. The sons and daughters of Chinese merchants who were taught English and American ways in the school learned the traditions of their parents' homeland.

The Lee brothers grew up in the 1100 block of Pennsylvania Avenue. They lived there until they graduated from the Polytechnic Institute, when their family moved to Northeast Baltimore.

Arthur attended college in Washington, D.C.; his brother, in Syracuse, N.Y. They came home for New Year's, a celebration of family and food that traditionally falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice.

Raymond's interest in the martial arts -- he's a fourth-degree black belt in tae kwon do -- kept the younger Lee interested in the dancing.

"If you go to any major city's Chinatown, most of the people lTC performing it [the lion dance] are from kung fu schools," said Raymond Lee, a 33-year-old commercial photographer.

Many steps in the lion dance, he said, resemble the martial arts poses -- such as the horse stance, in which the dancer stands with legs bowed as though he is riding a horse.

The brothers agree that their choreography is "a hodgepodge" of moves they have picked up over the years, either from former dancers or from observing other troupes.

Arthur Lee's advice to a newcomer is simply this: "Just follow the feet. If you're the tail, you follow the feet. Bend your back and follow the leader."

The Lees have been dancing with the same group of men for at least a decade. They have performed in ballrooms and church auditoriums, at Columbus Day parades and the Bartenders' Ball. Money they receive is donated to the church.

Over the years, as dragon and lion costumes have come and gone, the annual New Year's celebration at Grace and St. Peter's has diversified. Yesterday there were performances by tai chi swordsmen and Ukrainian youth dancers, classical piano solos and a reading of the fable of the White Monkey. Chinese folks songs followed the "The Star-Spangled Banner."

A Chinese-spiced smorgasbord of entertainment. And why not? asked Raymond Lee, whose stout appearance belies his agility. "We're in America. It's a melting pot." And that reminds Arthur Lee.

"Do you know an Italian group that would like to help us out next year?" he asked a visitor.

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