Lack of funding and young volunteers threaten fire dance

Organisers of fire dragon dances continue their traditions despite a lack of funding and young volunteers

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 September, 2013, 9:27am

This year will mark the 55th time Chan Tak-fai has taken part in the fire dragon dance, a tradition that has been staged annually in Tai Hang for more than 130 years as part of Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations.

"The dance has been held every year since 1880, except when Hong Kong was under Japanese occupation," says 67-year-old Chan, a former telecommunications worker.

The falling birth rate means it's more difficult for us to get young recruits
Chan Tak-fai, fire dragon organiser

Chan, who started as a fire dragon carrier when he was 12, has risen through the ranks to become the dragon dance's commander-in-chief.

For three consecutive nights from Wednesday, he will be directing 300 people as they hoist up a 70-metre straw dragon studded with incense sticks and manoeuvre it through the streets to Victoria Park and back again. As in previous years, the event is expected to draw large crowds.

But Chan is struggling to keep the tradition alive despite its popularity. Funding and succession are the problems, he says. "The falling birth rate means it's more difficult for us to get young recruits. If we can't get enough male participants, we might consider loosening the rule to allow women to carry the dragon as well," Chan says.

The cost of staging the dance has risen to about HK$500,000, and Chan and his supporters are finding it tougher to get donations. "We can't make the rounds of households for our fundraising drive like we used to," he says, because gaining access to modern residential blocks is difficult for non-residents.

Many of the same issues hobble organisers at Pok Fu Lam village, an old enclave of about 500 households, which will be staging a similar parade, albeit on a smaller scale.

Chinese medicine practitioner Ng Kwong-nam and his brother, Kong-kin, helped revive the tradition in Pok Fu Lam village after it was suspended from the 1980s to the '90s. This year, the dancers will take their 30-metre fire dragon beyond the village boundaries for the first time, making their way to nearby Aberdeen before finishing in Waterfall Bay.

Ng Kwong-nam is delighted their fire dragon has been restored to its former glory through collaboration with the Southern District Council.

"It will be a big performance," he says. "Seven nine-metre baby dragons will join the king dragon this year."

Although he has taken part in the rite since he was nine, 53-year-old Ng says that most Hongkongers do not know that the Pok Fu Lam fire dragon exists.

"Most people only think of Tai Hang when they're talking about the fire dragon dance. So my brother and I decided to shoulder most of the responsibility in organising the dance. We want to promote the culture of our village through it."

The village's fire dragon tradition began in 1910, with processions held on the eve of the Mid-Autumn Festival, as well as on the day itself; police used to block off Pokfulam Road for the dragon's passage. But because of traffic congestion, they were banned from using the road a decade ago, and the fire dragon now only appears on one day.

"We don't have the geographical advantage of Tai Hang, as our village is made up of narrow winding alleys which aren't good for navigation. You need space for the dragon to flex its body to show its ferocious spirit," Ng says.

In 2010, the Pok Fu Lam fire dragon dancers were included in the Southern District Council's tourism promotion programme for the first time. The programme paid for the making of DVDs, workshops and booklets about the tradition. But there was only a small subsidy for the extravaganza itself, and most of the HK$50,000 required comes from the villagers' own pockets.

The Ng brothers don't take issue with the scarce funding, but they do complain that government bureaucrats are creating obstacles for them. "Why can't they just block the road? It's just for several minutes once a year. They block roads for the annual Standard Chartered marathon for half a day," Ng Kwong-nam says.

The fire dragon dance received a big boost in 2011, when the Tai Hang tradition was included in China's third list of intangible cultural heritage, along with the Cheung Chau Bun Festival, the Tai O Dragon Boat Parade, and the Yu Lan Ghost Festival (Hungry Ghost) celebrated by the Chiu Chow community.

According to legend, the Tai Hang fire dragon dance was created in response to a plague that had beset the village, killing dozens of young men. An elderly villager had a dream in which a spirit said the misfortune would end if villagers bundled grass into a long dragon, covered it with incense sticks, and burned them as offerings to a python that they had killed. Since then, residents have gathered 1,000kg of pearl grass every year to make the dragon.

Four years ago the Tai Hang fire dragon extended its route to Victoria Park to entertain visitors on Mid-Autumn Festival night at the invitation of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department - an acknowledgement of its cultural significance.

Even so, Chan is having trouble identifying a suitable successor to take his place as commander-in-chief of the Tai Hang dragon. "I was chosen to take the helm because of my perseverance. The commander- in-chief must speak Hakka, as all ritual greetings must be made in that dialect," he says.

"The job requires lots of dedication. In the past I had to take two weeks off work to prepare for the performance. The chief is responsible for the promotion and selection of personnel for both leadership and rank-and-file posts. It's not easy to find a person with leadership skills and real passion for the dance."

But for the time being, Chan will do his best to keep the fire dragon burning. "As someone who was born in Tai Hang, I don't want a tradition that has been passed down for generations to fade away."

Lau Kwok-wai, executive director of the Conservancy Association Centre for Heritage, argues that the government could do more to preserve time-honoured customs in the community.

"Changes in social environment and urban renewal programmes have put many such traditions at risk. Besides getting people to make oral historical records of the traditions, I don't see much being done to preserve them," he says.

"The fire dragon dances already fare quite well compared to other lesser known traditions. The government commissioned the South China Research Centre at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology to compile a list of the intangible cultural heritage in Hong Kong [in 2009].

"But how the government will go about preserving the heritage on the list is unknown," says Lau.