Struggle Behind the Lion Dance (Part I)

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T&T China Times’ Interview with Maria Lee, founder of the Chinese Arts and Culture Studies Society (Written by Zhang Zhuo, translation: Meghan Ghent

Miles and miles away from China in the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, at every Chinese cultural celebration— even at local wedding ceremonies— one can often see a Chinese lion dance troupe. Just by looking at their costumes, props and performance skills, you can see that these dancers are true professionals. The organizer of this lion dance troupe, Ms. Maria Lee, who is approaching seventy years old, has for some time been quite well known in the local Chinese community. No matter who she sees, she always wears a sincere and candid smile; her every action speaks of an inexhaustible energy. However, those who know of her journey from struggling to start a business, to founding the lion dance troupe, number very few.

Maria Lee(刘兆媚), founder of the Chinese Arts and Culture Studies Society, was born in the 1940s in the town of Banfu in Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province. Due to her family’s poverty, she gave up her schooling after finishing primary school to help plant crops at home. Later on, Lee, who from a young age was a gifted speaker and loved to sing, was chosen to be part of the local cultural propaganda troupe, and went from door to door around the nearby villages and towns, performing gezi operas (a type of opera that originated in Guangdong). The young cultural troupe performer Maria Lee could never have imagined that her interest in cultural performance would later blossom and bear fruit on a small Caribbean island so far away from her home.

‘Last train’ out of China: “I was traded out”

In 1964, China had only just begun to recover from the great famine of the late 1950s when the storm of the Cultural Revolution was about to hit. In those days, the procedure involved in trying to leave the country was extremely difficult. When asked how she managed to leave the country back then, Lee joked that she had been “traded out”.
“At that time my big sister was in Trinidad doing business. In the early 60s she went to China to arrange to import a few containers of goods to Trinidad for her to sell. They said she was the first Trinidad Chinese to go to Mainland China to import goods, so because of that the government welcomed her warmly. The Central Government asked her if there was anything she needed, so she said she had a little sister (being me) still living in Guangdong, and that our parents had found me a good match in Trinidad, and that she hoped the government would approve me going there to meet up with him.”
Soon after, the special order to give Maria Lee permission to leave came down through each level of the Beijing Central Government, all the way to the town of Banfu in Zhongshan where Lee was. Just two days after she had arranged this permission to leave the country, however, a government order banning the granting to ordinary citizens of permission to leave China came into force. Maria Lee effectively caught the ‘last train’ out of China in the 60s. Perhaps it was fate.