Fight to keep fire-dragon rite from turning to ashes
Eight fire dragons will soon wend their colourful and smoky way through a Hong Kong Island village as they have for the previous 144 years, but young people's reluctance to join in the fun is causing concern for the future of the tradition.
Studded with burning incense sticks, each representing a wish, the 30-metre-long "king dragon" and its seven nine-metre-long "guards" are a spectacular feature of the Mid-Autumn Festival in Pok Fu Lam Village, a traditional enclave surrounded by luxury flats.
This year about 80 students from across the city made the straw dragons under the guidance of the Ng brothers, villagers who have been making the dragons for more than 40 years.
Ng Kwong-nam, 53, said that when he first took part in the ritual in the 1970s, he and his friends were happy to take turns helping to carry the dragons for a couple of dollars handed out in red packets by village elders.
"When I was young we could barely afford a bottle of Coke," he said. "A couple of dollars meant a lot. Nowadays, even if you give the kids HK$10 or HK$20, they are not willing to participate."
Ng Pui-chun, a villager in her 70s, said the fire dragon tradition dated to 1868 when the village's first residents paraded the dragons to ward off plague and chase away evil spirits.
"Now, the villagers don't understand we ought to cherish the heritage," Ng Kwong-nam said.
His younger brother Ng Kwong-kin has been promoting the tradition by teaching visitors to the village how to make fire dragons. "Usually it takes one person a week to finish the head," he said. But he said the village had only a couple of young people interested in learning and inheriting the technique.
Ng Kwong-nam's daughter, Zoey Ng Hiu-lam, is one of them.
"Making fire dragons is quite hard. I often get my fingers cut by the straws," said the 14-year-old.
"I want to inherit the cultural heritage if I can," she added.
The villagers will take the dance to nearby Aberdeen for the first time this year. The ritual will start with the king dragon and two guards leaving the village at 7pm on September 19, while the other five dragons will start their tour 30 minutes later from Aberdeen Promenade.
The fire dragon dance was different from the more famous version in Tai Hang, said Chu Ching-hong, chairman of Southern District Council. "People can actually stick their lit incense sticks into our dragon," he said.