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Year of the Snake 4699 slithers through Flushing

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By Chris Fuchs

Eric Yum was unfazed by two things his father, Ildoo, did at the Lunar New Year Parade in Flushing Saturday: breathe fire from his mouth and slice with a sword two pieces of fruit that had been placed on Eric’s body.

But not all of the dozens of groups that participated in the three-hour parade, which has been held in downtown Flushing since 1995, performed such nerve-wracking acts as Eric and Ildoo did.

Members of Falun Gong, a controversial spiritual movement in China, walked silently shoulder-to-shoulder to traditional Chinese music played from speakers on a pickup truck. And then there was Yee’s Hung Ga Kung Fu Academy, which directed the parade’s ornate lion and dragon to the discordant beat of cymbals and drums.

Expressions of delight were obvious in the more than 8,000 paradegoers, many of them locals, who lined the downtown streets Saturday. The heavy turnout belied the rancor that had cast a pall over the planning of Saturday’s festivities, even jeopardizing them.

Beginning in November, two coalitions of Asians had jockeyed to organize the parade this year — the Year of the Snake — with one accusing the other of turning it into a forum for Taiwanese and Chinese politics. The organizers of the parade, the Lunar New Year Committee 2001, were accused of trying to exclude Koreans from the event.

As a result, the group that lodged the accusations refused to walk the parade route Saturday. Instead the Lunar New Year Festival Committee held a dinner at the Seoul Plaza in Flushing Jan. 24 that drew 600 people from the Asian community and Queens’ political ranks.

The troupes that marched in the parade were as diverse as they were numerous. More than 30 organizations, including martial arts academies, both Korean and Chinese local businesses, commercial organizations and Asian civic groups, struck starkly different poses as the parade threaded its way through the downtown route.

Last year dignitaries from both Taiwan and China had shown up to the parade, creating a tense atmosphere before it even began. This year, however, the organizers stripped the parade of such politics and did not permit the official flying of either national flag.

“This year I think the parade was better because there were more people in it,” said Pao-Chuing Lu, a Flushing resident of 17 years. “It’s the Chinese New Year, so it’s best that all the families get along.”

There was some question about whether the organizers would allow adherents of Falun Gong, a spiritual movement in China that the Beijing government has officially banned, to march in the parade. Ultimately, the Flushing parade organizers allowed them to march on the condition that they not perform any of their slow-motion meditative movements.

“It’s the Chinese New Year, so we hope that all the families get along,” said Li-Cong Xu of New Jersey, a member of the Falun Gong. “We weren’t here last year. We are just here to enjoy the party.”

But one man successfully stole the limelight more than once during the parade. Midway through, onlookers standing behind wooden horses on Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue did a double take when they glimpsed something in the distance: roaring fire balls.

Dressed in his martial arts uniform, Ildoo Yum looked like a white speck from afar. As he approached the crowd on Roosevelt Avenue, the picture became clearer: A 40-something man, holding two torches, was swishing around lighter fluid in his mouth as if it were mouthwash. Then, holding a torch near his mouth, he belched out columns of flames. It smelled like a charcoal barbecue being lighted on a summer day, producing a hot stench that hung in the air for several minutes.

All this exacted a toll on Yum, the grand master of Yum’s Martial Arts Academy in Elmhurst. He seemed delirious, almost intoxicated when reporters encircled him to ask his name. Moments later, when asked his age, he answered by guzzling some more lighter fluid, dazzling the crowd with yet more flames that lunged as high as 15 feet.

If Yum’s fire display was meant to wow and woo the crowd, the Lion and Dragon dances were intended to hew more to the tradition of the Lunar New Year.

Yee’s Hung Ga Kung Fu Academy was accorded the honor of performing both the Lion and Dragon dances, a repertoire taught only to those most expert in martial arts. Teams of up to 12 people took turns steering both the lion and the dragon, leaping and dancing to a cacophony of drums, gongs and cymbals. Then at the end of the parade route, each rose to meet the grand marshal, Queens Borough President Claire Shulman, who stood on a grandstand waiting to hand over “lucky money” wrapped in cabbage leaves.

The lion received its lucky money without event. But the dragon? Well, there was a small problem — somehow they forgot to wrap its money.

“I don’t know if you noticed, but the dragon took a little longer,” said Ellen Young, the emcee, chuckling. Nonetheless, the organizers managed to scare up some money and some cabbage leaves in time for no one to notice a thing.

About a half hour later, Yum’s Martial Arts Academy reappeared on Roosevelt Avenue and Union Street, the end of the parade route. Eric, a black belt in a black uniform, was directed by his father, Ildoo, to lay down on the street. Ildoo put two soft radishes on his body — one on his stomach, the other on his neck. Then he removed a skinny sword from a sheathe, and after raising and lowering it several times, breathing meditatively, he sliced both fruits. Eric was unharmed — and unfazed.

“You let the mind control the pain,” Eric said.

Reach reporter Chris Fuchs by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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