Once a year for decades, a 268-foot-long golden dragon is let loose on the streets of San Francisco for the largest nighttime Chinese New Year Parade in the country, and it takes more than several men and women to subdue the beast — it takes an army.
The 35 members of Leung’s White Crane Dragon and Lion Dance Association who carry the Gum Lung, as the dragon is called in Cantonese, get their hands on it merely a couple hours before the parade, which is Saturday. After a few practice runs, they brave several miles holding the dragon, whose head alone weighs about 30 pounds.
“It’s 2½ to three hours of constant moving — moving fast, running around, moving slow and then having firecrackers going all around you,” said Gary Low, the association’s troop leader. “You have to have good cardio and stamina.”
Apart from the parade dragon being heavier — the dancers typically use nine-person dragons with heads weighing three to five pounds — the Gum Lung’s length limits them to running in circular, zigzag and snakelike patterns rather than acrobatic moves.
Low, who is attending his 32nd parade this year, said carrying the Gum Long is “a big honor” because it is one of a kind.
The dragon was fabricated by hand in China using bamboo and gold cloth, then painted with a rainbow of oil enamel colors. The mythical creature’s head represents various animals from the Chinese zodiac.
“It’s an ancient tradition. There’s probably two or three more old masters that make the dragons from scratch,” Low said. “A lot of them have passed away and have not passed on the art.”
Though people in China are attempting to replicate the dragon-making craft of the masters, their work does not yet reach the caliber of the originals, he said.
The association was established in 1972 by Low’s master, who had newly immigrated to San Francisco, and is one of the biggest dragon and lion dancing groups in The City with some 75 members from Hong Kong, China, Taiwan and local residents.
Bearing the Gum Lung hasn’t gotten boring for Low over the past three decades because association alumni come back to power the dragon and bring their children, making the age range of dancers from 16 to 64.
“It’s like a reunion. We see everybody,” Low said. “Many generations come back to help us do the golden dragon and it’s been passed on from generation to generation to generation.”
And after the adrenaline of each cheer-filled parade, the Gum Lung — valued at about $15,000 — is disassembled, packed in wooden crates and stored in a warehouse until the following Chinese New Year, when the association breathes life into it once again.