Whose lion is it anyway?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 January, 2012, 12:00am


On the first day of the year, more than 1,111 lions and 88 dragons - operated by more than 2,000 performers ranging from elderly men to young girls - collectively strutted their way from Central to Wan Chai. Six days later, dozens of lion dancing troupes from around the world, from Malaysia to the Netherlands, put on a spectacle at the Hong Kong Coliseum, with performances accompanied by light shows and pounding bass music.

The former, backed by the Hong Kong Tourism Board, was billed as the Lion and Dragon Dance Extravaganza; the latter, dubbed the World Hong Kong Luminous Dragon Dance & Lion Championship, was a product of the Hong Kong Chinese Martial Arts Dragon and Lion Dance Association. Both events were designed to be a showcase of the ancient Chinese art of lion dancing to celebrate New Year's Day - on the solar calendar. For Chinese the real celebration, Lunar New Year, is yet to come.

That Lunar New Year also happens to fall in January this year makes it a particularly busy month for performers. Many of the top lion dance troupes in Hong Kong who participated in both events - such as the Ha Kwok Cheung Dragon and Lion Dance and the Yun Fook Tong Chinese Martial Art, Dragon and Lion Dance Association - are already booked through the rest of the month, with performances across town in the days leading up to the first week of the Lunar calendar.

For Chan Kam-lam, the Kowloon East representative for the Legislative Council, this month is a particularly exciting time. He came up with the idea of the Lion and Dragon Dance Extravaganza last year as a passion project. A fan of lion dancing since childhood, he felt the art form was losing its status with the new generation.

'I believe lion and dragon dancing is part of our culture and heritage and it should be everlasting,' he says. 'So last year I approached a group of lion troupes with the idea of putting together a huge show for [Lunar New Year].'

Chan says they were receptive, but could participate only in early January - a full month or more before the actual Chinese festivities.

'So, with the dates [of the solar and Lunar New Year] closer together this year, it's extra festive,' he says.

For this year's festival, Chan sought the help of Ha Tak-kin, the third-generation master of the Ha Kwok Cheung troupe, the biggest lion dance company in Hong Kong.

'It's only fitting, given the Ha family history,' Chan says, referring to Ha's father, the late Ha Kwok-cheung, an old-school sifu (martial arts master) whose status as Hong Kong's 'King of Lion Dance' was surpassed only by his reputation for defeating other martial artists in street fights during the 1950s.

That was when martial artists opened up schools in the city, and the only way to prove supremacy was to fight it out, explains Ha, 54, who started learning kung fu from his dad at age four. 'When people started getting seriously injured, the Hong Kong government stepped in and cracked down.'

So the local martial artists turned to lion dancing as a way to represent and express their style, effectively turning a 1,000-year-old art form, based on an ancient Chinese folklore about a mythical lion that served as a guardian against evil, into a mascot for their respective martial arts schools.

Lee Yun-fook, 61, who started Yun Fook Tong in 1984, says he'll always consider lion dancing to be a part of Chinese kung fu, but admits it can't be promoted that way today.

'Back then, you had to train for at least a year to perform, probably double that to control the lion's head,' he says. 'But nobody will go through that now, so we [sifus] are loosening the rules, teaching lion dancing as a stand-alone art.'

Lee says he has about 100 active students, a figure that's significantly lower than in the '80s, but the Hong Kong government has been very active in keeping the art relevant, with festivals, competitions and school programmes designed to keep lion dancing relevant.

Lee is also one of the committee members of the non-profit Hong Kong Chinese Martial Arts Dragon and Lion Dance Association, whose mission is to promote the sport. Lee says the group frequently partners with schools to introduce lion dancing to young children.

'My lion dancing pupils have changed completely from young men looking to learn martial arts to school kids,' he says.

One of his most active students is nine-year-old Natalie Tan Yan-tung, who says lion dancing helped strengthen her body for other sports.

'I'm very active. I play tennis, run and dance, but lion dancing works my body the most,' she says. 'But it makes my hands ache.'

Her brother, Brian Tan Yee-hung, 12, also takes lessons as the percussionist for the lion team. He's in it for the love of drumming.

Such is the case for today's young practitioners. Even Ha, coming from several generations of martial arts family, endorses gimmicks for lion dancing. In fact, they may be the pioneers, having unveiled the city's first all-girl lion dancing team two years ago and a hip hop dancing team this year.

'We have to branch out and adapt to the current generation,' Ha says. 'I think most young people would find traditional lion dancing a bit boring, so we are trying to turn it into an all-out show.'

It's a changing scene for these sifus. Once they made their living teaching martial arts, but now they're providing entertainment services with their skills. Ha says their hip hop troupes have been in high demand locally and on the mainland.

One of Ha's biggest competitors now is The Fiery Dragon Lion Sports Association, co-founded by a former disciple, Tobias Chong Wing-to.

The Fiery Dragon Lion troupe focuses almost exclusively on what Chong calls 'stylish lion dancing' - shows that are as much about the party as the dancing, with the performers likelier to be grooving to the latest rap song by Kanye West (with Chinese cymbals and gongs mixed in) than to drumbeats.

'We're a diverse, younger group, offering an alternative to traditional lion dancing, which many young Hongkongers may consider boring,' explains Chong, 30, whose clients include clothing brands IT and French jeweller Cartier.

But out in the villages of the New Territories, where traditions and indigenous culture are more entrenched, many still regard lion dancing as a sacred ritual that brings good fortune in the upcoming year.

Chan Ka-kui, a 63-year-old former martial artist and a long-time resident of Ma Tin Tsuen in Yuen Long, says he's planning a big show with a dozen dancing lions on Lunar New Year's Day next week.

'Lion dancing serves as the backbone to our celebration, which also includes a grand festival and a lot of eating,' he says.

However, Lam Tsuen, the Tai Po village known for its Wishing Tree, won't host any performances this year. 'We've done lion dancing before, but it was never a must as part of our celebration,' says Chan Wing-sze, Wishing Tree committee spokeswoman.

As big a part of Chinese festivities as it is, all agree that it's now largely commercialised. 'Back then, people learned martial arts to be strong and healthy,' Ha says. 'Few people now want to learn martial arts, let alone lion dancing.

'But government groups ... are doing a great job promoting it, and we're trying hard to keep it relevant with the youth. It's never going to go away, but the heyday of being a proud lion dancer who prided himself in winning tournaments - like my father was - is gone.'