Dragons Welcomed Back

Art and beauty are proving to be the greatest weapons against old-time racism in a tiny Olympic Peninsula town.

In 2011, the Year of the Rabbit celebrations started downtown with a new dragon awakening and prancing in front of and through the Weel Way Deli, near the town’s southern entrance. The event was eagerly anticipated because the original dragon, “Pollyanna,” had not appeared for the last two years, after suffering storage damage in an attic in the form of a few appreciative rats. 2008 was the Year Of The Rat; perhaps the opportunistic rodents thought they were blessing an proffered feast.

The two new dragons made to replace the beloved original represented the yin/yang or male/female principle. A magnificent red female creature, made for a train of performers to carry, was named “Aurora.” She sported a bright-blue head adorned with silver hair, and her one-person male counterpart, “Ching Chang,” was resplendent in purple and sparkling golden horns.

“Ching Chang” is an old west-coast racial slur against people of Asian ancestry. When dealing with people here, it must be understood that many of them, even the most decent, can be socially frozen in a period that might correspond to 1910 in the more enlightened society. It is probable that the people in the Three Sisters of Clallam Art Gallery, that sponsored the dance, weren’t even aware of the slur when they were offered the name. It sounds like bells, and metallic noisemakers are a big part of the dance.

Pollyanna’s head had been made of painted cardboard, her body of sheets of crimson plastic held together with long strips of “Clallam Bay Chrome,” the duct tape that shows up like silver on the films uploaded onto YouTube. The new dragon masks were made by Forks artist Greg Hubbard, who made forms out of rebar wire, and covered then with athletic support tape. This simple, waterproof method was invented by Hubbard with materials that were inexpensive, as well as being readily available for construction and medical uses in the local area. The method was borrowed by other members of the community to create their own headdresses and masks for the dance.

The dragon body was built by the students in the Cape Flattery School District’s Coast Afterschool Program, funded in Clallam Bay and Neah Bay by by a Century 21 grant. The students were supervised by preschool teacher Eddie Bowlby.

Pollyanna had been made by Jane and Terry Hielman, who own and operate Clallam Bay’s Sunset West Co-op. She sometimes appeared a little sway-backed as short kids took on their share of bearing up her long body, so Aurora was made with a long tail, where all the youngsters who wanted to could join in the dance.

After the new dragons were awakened to their new life, the parade chimed and gleamed through town on the sidewalk along the narrow, winding highway, as traffic slowed down, their drivers honking and waving. When the parade needed to cross the street, runners set up signal points on the highway. Local drivers, including those piloting logging trucks, had come to expect the dance, and waited the couple of minutes it took for everybody, from dragons to kids, to safely cross the two-lane road.

Some residents in a town mostly made up of Swedes, First Nations, and Hispanics had asked, “What’s Chinese New Year got to do with us?” Oddly enough, these questions came most often from the newcomers, rather than the people who had been here for centuries or millennia. It’s amusing, if embarrassing, to listen to white people arguing about whether their families arrive in the area in 1912 or 1947, seemingly without being aware how that might appear to First Nations residents.

If nothing else, a small rain-soaked community alone on a windswept, water-side highway can use all the rackety fun it can get, regardless of origins or even intent. With noisemakers ranging from Tibetan devil-bells to cooking pans whacked with a spoon, dragon-kites, and costumes ranging from Chinese farming hats to full representations of other creatures from the Chinese year calendar, the dancers made up in enthusiasm what they might have lacked in authenticity. The few Asian folks in town, Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese, seemed to be delighted with this version.

Thu Tran, from Vietnam, runs the town’s one non-residential hair salon, a small white-painted shop glittering with the dozens of jewel-bright Christmas ornaments hanging from the ceiling. The ornaments were part of a display that won her the town’s Christmas Lights contest one year, and everybody liked them so much Tran left them in place.

Tran was thrilled when she had seen Pollyanna dancing, laughing, “I never thought I’d see one of those again!”

The first year the dance was held, Hwai-Kee Tsiang, whose wife Sandy owns the town’s lovely bed-and-breakfast, Winter’s Summer Inn, was honored by being given the place of dragon-head dancer, until he just wore out. There’s a reason those dragon-dancers who appear in professional teams train all year; it takes a lot of stamina to head up a full-size dragon.

This year Sandy dashed out of the inn as the parade passed and virtually dragged the dragon into the inn, repeating, “Bless my house! Bless my house!” The parade happily complied, jangling and dancing good luck into the inn. It bought up memories of the year Pollyanna first appeared on the scene, and the new-year’s potluck that then took place at the inn, with Sandy providing many of the Chinese dishes.

2011’s dance was followed by a potluck at the Three Sisters of Clallam Art Gallery. Sharing foods at a community feast is a tradition in the area, based on everything from Thanksgiving dinners to potlatches. They usually include many old-fashioned and tasty dishes from pioneer days and the 1950’s, including venison mince pie, pies with crusts light enough to fly away, and that northwest First Nations staple, home-smoked salmon.

At these potlucks there is always something new, attracting with its freshness and delicious aromas. Along with the traditional west-end preparations spread out on a table-cloth on the gallery pool-table, the Dragon potluck included blowing-hot steamed edamame beans with a savory hot sauce, fried and filled tofu pockets, and my own Lazy White Girl Onion Cakes.

I call them that because the original Chinese onion cake takes long preparation, and I did the quick-and-easy western version. Add a lot of chopped hot onions — green or bulb — to a stiff dough of Bisquick ® biscuit mix and fry tablespoons of the dough in lard (no, this is not health food; this is to guarantee a rich, fat year). Serve with a sweet-and-sour sauce made of tamarind paste, palm sugar, and hot water. Stand back and watch ’em disappear.

If you’re interested in attending the next Dragon Joy — and helping to make devil-scaring noise — keep an eye on the community events column in the Forks Forum, http://www.forksforum.com