*Included in print edition
You can call it the lion that got back its roar. A dilapidated lion head costume in his martial art teacher’s garage caught Corey Chan’s eye. Or maybe it supernaturally beckoned him. At that moment, he was intrigued with the idea of bringing it back to life. The middle school youth worker invested a month carefully transforming it into something exquisite as he taught himself with no books or videos to guide him. The results were extremely gratifying. Since that first accomplishment in 1978, the lion head restorer has rescued dozens.
Approximately the size of a thirty-inch ball, lion heads are made in China and range from $400 to $2,000. The head is the cornerstone of the ancient lion dance that has mesmerized millions. Acrobats in traditional lion costume mimic the animal scratching, shaking, jumping, and licking its fur. Lion heads can last for several years or break after one performance. The bulbous eyes that blink, gaping mouth, and flapping ears are manipulated by hidden strings which can fray and snap. Thin layers of paper, painted to a glossy sheen, cover the bamboo and wire armature, and can be easily punctured.
Giving them personalities are accessories such as metal disks, silk balls, fringe, and fake fur. Weighing between five and eight pounds, they can feel heavy if the dancer is not skilled. “Without training, you cannot last the length of a parade. You can get tired after a few minutes,” explains Corey (pictured above). “You are not just walking around with it on. You must make it look and act like a live creature.” Each cat comes to Corey with its own set of problems. Corey replaces inferior parts with better ones. He strengthens controls that operate eyelids and ears. He repairs tears and refreshes the paint. By the time this lion head whisperer puts the finishing touches on the creature, “it is like bringing memories back to the lion head,” he says. “You can almost feel the gratitude of the lion, and it knows people will see it perform again. Even if I don’t know all the stories associated with the lion, it will have the opportunities to create new ones.”