Brightly colored dancing lions fill the streets of New York City every year for the celebration of the Lunar New Year and other special occasions. Lion dancing is a tradition that dates back thousands of years and is still practiced today thanks to people like Jian Wei, a 17-year-old lion dancer in New York City who is part of the next generation carrying on the tradition. In a new short film by Josh Charow, Wei takes viewers behind the scenes and explains why keeping this tradition alive is so important.

Jian Wie lion dancer
Film Still Courtesy of Josh Charow

“Every year, I see the Lion Dancers performing in Chinatown around Lunar New Year, and I am blown away by the beauty of this tradition,” Charow told Untapped New York. The filmmaker, who previously introduced us to the man who is in charge of the New Year’s Eve confetti drop, likes to explore the “inner workings and behind-the-scenes aspects” of traditions.

After watching the mesmerizing Lunar New Year dancers, Charow reached out to the New York Chinese Freemasons Athletic Club, where the dancers train and practice. The club was happy to welcome the cameras.

“I explained my style of character-driven documentary, and they were actually the ones who chose Jian Wei to be the subject of the film,” Charow shares. Jian Wei, a native of Manhattan’s Chinatown, is a young lion dancer who isn’t even out of high school yet.

In the film, Wei relates his first memory of watching a lion dance performance. He was seven years old and his sister was behind the mask. When he as his sister if he could get involved, she enthusiastically welcomed him to the lion-dancing community.

Lion dancers working out
Film Still Courtesy of Josh Charow

There is a lot of work that dancers must go through before they can take to the streets in their masks. “The most surprising thing I learned was the intense physical rigor required to become a lion dancer,” Charow says of what he learned throughout the filming process, “It takes a full year of intense training before most people are allowed to get behind the lion head.” In the film, you can see Wei and his fellow dancers doing push-ups, lifting weights, and hitting punching bags to get in shape.

In the end, all of the hard work is worth it. For Wei, who was born in America, lion dancing is a way for him to connect to his Chinese heritage. He explains in the film that it has also introduced him to many role models, people in the community who are older and wiser that he can look to for advice.

“It’s an important part of our culture because it’s a great way for people to connect to each other and celebrate Chinese New Year with everybody, blessing stores, and business,” Wei explains in the film, adding, “It’s a great traditional thing that should be kept going so younger Asian American people can realize ‘Damn I have a really cool culture!'”

Jian Wei, a lion dancer in Chinatown
Film Still Courtesy of Josh Charow

Charow credits the longevity of lion dancing and other cultural traditions like it to “the dedication and drive of hard-working individuals who have made the decision to pass it on to the next generation. Jian Wei embodies this dedication and is an expert in his craft.” You can watch the entire short film above or at this link.

Next, check out 10 Secrets of Chinatown