Library grant keeps the dragon dancing in Viroqua

You can’t have a dragon dance without a dragon.

That was the problem weighing on Pleasant Ridge Waldorf School (PRWS) teacher Shihhan Chou as she prepared for Lunar New Year festivities set for the first day of the Year of the Dragon, Saturday, February 10.

Ms. Chou had received help from dragon dance coaches in Chicago and reserved the requisite dragon puppet, pearl and drum from the closest Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, also in Chicago. However, her school is located over four hour’s drive away – in Viroqua, Wisconsin, where Ms. Chou had two eight-member teams of 7th graders in Christina Hotchkiss’ class learning a dragon dance routine, assisted by committed parent volunteers.  So what Ms. Chou really needed was a dragon that would be able to stay in Viroqua, to be used again and again for school and public performances. She’d located the correct type of dragon puppet on a Chinese website, but she worried about the expense, and that it would not arrive in time for the school Lunar New Year assembly in Viroqua.

“I wasn’t even sure if it was a real website,” she said.

The first of two public dragon dance performances by 7th graders at Pleasant Ridge Waldorf School in Viroqua, Wisc.

For funding, Ms. Chou relied on her local public library, McIntosh Memorial, which serves a rural community based in the seat of Vernon County, located in the heart of southwestern Wisconsin’s Driftless Region. And since a Lunar New Year dragon is an item symbolic of East Asian culture, McIntosh’s librarians turned to the “East Asia in Wisconsin Libraries Program” through the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for East Asian Studies (CEAS).

This program is now in its fourth year and McIntosh is among 71 Wisconsin libraries that have received grants for up to $1,000 per year for buying materials and holding community programs about East Asia. Notably, Viroqua’s McIntosh Memorial is the only library in the state that has received a grant for four years in a row. This funding has been used to purchase over 80 titles for the library collection, along with materials and other costs related to programming—including the dragon, which arrived on time.

“It came with only half the bamboo poles,” Ms. Chou noted. “But we got the rest at a local hardware store.”

Serving up traditional Lunar New Year dishes.

Pleasant Ridge Waldorf School’s 7th grade students were able to perform for an audience of over 100 who attended the school’s Lunar New Year celebration, which included tables for making Chinese-style dumplings and a buffet for sampling Korean rice cake soup. PRWS, a K-8 school, has hosted students from Korea each January for the past twelve years, and Ms. Chou said she was eager to learn from the visiting Korean students how Lunar New Year celebrations differ. She learned that both involve children receiving New Year gift envelopes with money from their elders, though the envelopes are red in Taiwan (where Ms. Chou grew up) but white in Korea. Both festivals also involve large New Year’s Eve feasts of traditional foods, like the dumplings and soup offered at the PRWS gathering.

For McIntosh Library, encouraging understanding of the Lunar New Year, a major holiday in East Asian countries, has been a focus for the library funding received from CEAS. For the Year of the Tiger, the library sponsored a class on how to make dumplings, and the year prior, handed out “Take and Make” bags featuring a Chinese lantern craft project. (Lunar New Year festivities traditionally start with a new moon and conclude 15 days later with the Lantern Festival, which celebrates the first full moon of the lunar year.)

CEAS, a federally-funded Title VI National Resource Center, launched the library program at the start of the COVID19 pandemic, when the center was forced to reimagine its outreach model, which normally involves bringing people together to discuss issues connecting East Asia in Wisconsin. The center instead found a way to partner in early 2020 with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s (DPI) Public Library Team to fund libraries.

“Public libraries are natural partners in the Wisconsin Idea, which our center and faculty take very seriously,” said CEAS associate director David Fields. “We decided to use some of our resources to help libraries provide high-quality materials and programming to patrons looking for information on East Asia.”

The program proved so successful that it has become a regular part of CEAS activities, dispersing an average of $20,000 per year.

The launch of the program in 2020 also corresponded with the hiring of Laci Sheldon at McIntosh Memorial.

“This was the first grant I applied for,” she said.

McIntosh Memorial librarian Laci Sheldon with a children’s book purchased through the East Asia in Wisconsin Library Program.

Ms. Sheldon said the grant dovetailed with her focus on creating diverse programming, particularly through a special monthly series created to encourage awareness and acknowledge different histories. January starts the annual cycle with special displays about Asian American Heritage Month.

The latest grant to McIntosh Memorial was used to buy books about such topics as migration from China to Taiwan (Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica Lee), and an African man who became a samurai in feudal Japan (The True Story of Yasuke by Thomas Lockley and Geoffrey Girard), along with several books about the Korean language.

Items purchased through CEAS funding all have a sticker inside acknowledging the program.

“We have used this for everything from books for adults to board-books for babies, all about East Asia,” said Ms. Sheldon, holding up a children’s title, Playing with Lanterns, by Wang Yage, and pointing to the sticker inside. “This has really increased awareness.”

The new dragon dance puppet will now be available for future events in Viroqua. After the festival at PRWS, it was slated for a performance at the Vernon County 4-H Lunar New Year Celebration, held in Viroqua’s Historic Temple Theater February 18 and attended by over 200.

“It turned out to be a really successful event,” said Ms. Chou of the PRWS 7th Grade’s dance. “We had to make this happen. It’s the Year of the Dragon. Now we have a dragon and can make it a tradition.”