Chinese New Year Dragon Will Dance in L.A.’s New Cathedral

Times Staff Writer

Flailing two wooden sticks the size of rolling pins, choreographer Jaw John Chang pounded out the steady dragon dance beat on a floor drum with his lanky arms.

With the rhythm, his nine charges circled the rehearsal room waving poles attached to the make-believe beast. They marched in swift motions, leading the dragon’s head and tail under its body and round again to form a figure eight.

The pounding percussion, coupled with the menacing 50-foot dragon, is believed to ward off evil spirits and usher in good fortune in the Chinese New Year, which is today.


The dance is one of hundreds Chang, 64, has studied and taught throughout his travels, from his homeland of Vietnam, to Taiwan, Thailand, the Middle East and the United States. But this recent practice is in preparation for something different.

Chang has exhibited his talents for Chinatown and San Gabriel Valley audiences for 28 years. But on Saturday, Chang and his ensemble will perform in one of Los Angeles’ newest civic and spiritual landmarks: the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

It will be a first of its kind at the church, which has had festivities for various ethnic communities, said Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the L.A. Archdiocese, who could not recall a church event with a dragon dance.

Chinese New Year is followed by 14 days of celebrations, which culminate with the Lantern Festival. The two weeks resemble a gastronomic Olympics as friends and family visit back and forth, eating festive foods reserved for the new year.

“The dinner is a big family thing,” said dancer Christina Chan, 23, whose older sister Eileen is also in the production. “We get 40 to 50 people at our house. It’s like Thanksgiving.”

The group’s performance will open a special afternoon Mass to commemorate the new year -- the year of the monkey. Catholics, many of them Chinese Americans from throughout Southern California, will attend, as well as Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and Auxiliary Bishop Ignatius Wang of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, the first Asian American bishop.


“They usually don’t let a dragon in a church, so we’re very excited,” said Chang, an Arcadia resident who blends well in the polyglot San Gabriel Valley. In addition to English and a smattering of French, he speaks Cantonese, Mandarin, Taiwanese, Vietnamese and Fukienese, a language from one of China’s eastern coastal provinces.

Aside from the dragon dance, Chang’s two dozen performers will also pay homage to their ancestors with a lantern dance and a ribbon dance.

Three hundred years ago, the presence of such rituals divided some Catholic orders during the “Rites Controversy.” Observance of Chinese rituals was prohibited in churches because they were considered idolatry -- the worship of false gods. It wasn’t until 1939 that the rule was reversed.

“We’re not worshiping our ancestors, we’re remembering them,” said Eileen Chan, 25. The siblings are typical of Chang’s performers. They were enrolled by their parents as young girls to expose them to Chinese culture. Over the years, they have developed a passion for the art and continue on.

Sheer determination willed Chang into attaining his expertise. He’s an engineer by trade -- a former Jet Propulsion Laboratory employee who now runs his own firm. But he dedicated the other half of his life to folk dance.

“This is his love,” said Chang’s wife, Helen, a banker who often helps out as an instructor. “When we moved to Arcadia 17 years ago, he’d teach in the backyard. He never gave up. He’s still learning.”

Chang’s house is crammed with books about Chinese dance. He spent 21 years collecting 48 manuals explaining China’s different dance styles from every province. They were reprinted in the early 1980s after they had nearly disappeared during the Cultural Revolution, he said.

His entree into dance was ballet when he was 7 years old. He moved to Taiwan and became enamored of eastern styles, soon winning a prestigious national award as a performer.

After earning his master’s degree in Thailand, he was hired to help build highways in Beirut, Jordan and Kuwait in the 1970s. While in the region, he taught a class and marveled at how similar Middle Eastern dance was to Chinese.

Before landing in Arcadia, Chang and his wife lived in San Francisco and El Monte. Chang rents out a modest dance studio in Monrovia, where he teaches about 100 people, young and old. He owns two dragons -- a blue female and a red male -- bought a decade ago at a discount from a struggling Chinese dance troupe that was trying to make its way back to Beijing.

Chang’s enterprise barely breaks even each year because of an expensive annual November recital in San Gabriel in which his students show off over a dozen dances.

“He’s not making money off of this,” said Francis Yam, whose 8-year-old daughter is in Saturday’s lantern dance. “The point is, he wants to keep our Chinese traditions.”