Daniel Rubin | Is it a dragon or a scapegoat?

Posted: June 21, 2007

These are dark days for the dragon of the Wing Phat Mall.

A blue tarp masks his luminous eye and wind-snorting lips. A second canvas covers his spiked tail. Just this week workmen took a rectangular bite out of his jeweled flanks to create a back door for a new tenant.

"The dragon is good luck. The dragon is powerful," says Kim Hy, who owns the building with her husband, Jeffrey. "Maybe too powerful."

Four Februaries ago, more than 100 people gathered on a rainy day to dedicate the 3-D mural at 12th and Washington in South Philadelphia. Fireworks exploded. Dragon dancers entertained.

Trouble visited immediately. And stayed.

"The day it went up, two or three tenants said they were moving out," says Kim Hy. "Business turned very bad. Couples who run the businesses started fighting. They said, 'Maybe it's the dragon.' "

A dragon is a powerful symbol for Hy, an ethnically Chinese native of Vietnam. According to her beliefs, her people are descendants of the fabled creature. The dragon brings good luck, she says - or rather, the dragon intensifies the luck one has.

"When he is not good for you," she says, "he is bad for you."

Which is why she wants the city to make the dragon go away. In the meantime, tarps are in place, covering the dragon's head and tail, to mute its power.

Slaying the dragon

Mike Smash spent four months installing the mosaic, working five days a week, with the help of his fiance and youths ordered by the courts to do community service.

They created a 125-foot-long, 24-foot-high mural of a green and black dragon, speckled with gold and red flakes, studded with mirrors, and surfing the gray and white sea.

Smash frothed yesterday when told someone had cut a door in his creation to please a tenant.

"Artistically, the dragon has been slain," he said.

He's offered to change the design to appease the Hy family, he said, but they haven't been able to sit down together.

Jane Golden, director of Philadelphia's Mural Arts Project, was appalled.

"I think it's really important that we maintain our work. We want the work to look beautiful. We also want the building owners to know they can't cut holes, they can't let dumpsters be banged against the building."

She said, "I'm heartbroken."

Creating a new mural would be expensive, she said. Ideally, the local business community would help pay. What's really important is to find something "everyone wants and can feel proud of."

Wrong dragon

A different design might help.

Some feel the Wing Fat dragon is not a good-luck symbol. "There are good dragons and bad dragons," says Alex Wong, finance director for the Folk Arts Cultural Treasure School.

"Usually the color of the dragon is yellow. In the old days that was the color only for the emperor. . . . Any other color would be a negative."

Kim Hy doesn't think her building has a bad dragon.

"I like the dragon," she says.

The artist concedes he did not create a traditional dragon.

"I know it looks more like something from The Neverending Story than something from traditional Asian art, but I wanted to make it more unique," Smash says. "It seemed to please everybody. Now it's turned into this thing."

I walk around the Wing Fat Mall, talking to tenants about their dragon. Two are so new they don't even know there's a mural on the building's back wall. The others don't think their problems are the dragon's doing.

Some mention the competition from nearby Asian malls. Others say the stores suffer from the lack of a marquee tenant.

A woman who works behind the counter of Lucky Jewelry expresses the majority view of what's hurting business.

"It's the parking," says the woman, who'll give only her first name, Jenny. "There is no parking. Customers fight for spaces here. It's the parking, not the dragon."

Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com. Read his work at http://go.philly.com/danrubin.

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