July 3, 2012

As I was browsing eBay for interesting things I came across a listing for a “~~CHINESE Ancient Art RARE Handmade Ceremonial Pagent Satin LION DANCING ROBE~~” and lo and behold the picture wasn’t of a robe at all but a vintage tail for a Liu Bei lion. From the pictures it appeared to be in great condition, especially considering its age. The description was a bit odd, but I was intrigued–what was the story of this tail? Where was the head? What group did it come from? What maker? So I contacted the lister to find out what I could.

The lister had bought it at an auction and only knew that it came from a group who had used it in the Seattle Seafair Parade so that really didn’t tell me much. My passion for lion restoration was ignited however and I began to wonder about the possibility of reuniting this tail with an old head so it could be properly seen as it was meant to be.

I knew of several lion heads on display in museums around the country that are displayed without tails: (none of these pictures were taken by me):

Wing Luke Store Private Chinese Historical Museum
This lion is in the collection of the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle. This lion was rescued from a trash bin in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. A rare traditional Hok San lion made by Lo An Kee. This lion is currently on display at the Chinese Historical Museum in San Diego.

The asking price of $299 was out of my league though, especially for a tail without a head and considering that a majority of the craftsmanship and value is in the head not the tail. Luckily the lister was open to bargaining and I was able to purchase it for less.

When the package arrived and I was able to inspect it further I found it was in great condition, almost appearing unused. There was no staining, even on the white undercloth where the tail player’s sweat usually leaves tell-tale black marks and on the white rabbit fur along the bottom edges that are among the first areas to soil. On a close inspection I ohnly found one are that was slightly tattered, one small metal disc missing and a couple of metal discs that were bent. Other than that everything was intact. One sort of disappointing thing was the description listed it as 15 feet long which would make it really traditional and probably pre 1960s, but when I measured it came out to only 10 feet which was more common from the 70s to 80s. I think the lister didn’t know how to measure it and included the back part that drapes down in her calculation. You could also tell the tail had been in storage for a while because of the wrinkles and how some of the triangles didn’t lay flat anymore due to the way it had been folded.

There were also some other interesting things I noticed:

Large Discs Loops Ties Bells
All of the discs are gold color, instead of the more common silver used today. The three large discs on the top pink layer were not evenly spaced, I’m not sure if it was meant to be like that or if one fell off and was sewn back on in the wrong place. A series of nylon web loops were sewn down the back of the lion. Obviously a much later addition, it looked like something put on to attach the tail to a pole or tie strings on to hang it for display. On the bottom there were ties sewn in directly under the loops and some additional pieces of nylon webbing. Very curious what these were added for. Under every other triangle brass bells were sewn in. These are usually missing from modern tails but were an important part of the lion’s ability to frighten away evil as the sound of bells are said to scatter the spirtis.

All in all it was a rare find and it was great to see it up close and personal. Many lion dancers these days have never gotten to see a tail like this and it brought back may good memories of dancing under the long traditional tails. Hopefully soon I’ll be able to post some pictures of it reunited with an old head and people can really see what things looked like “back in the day.”