THE lions of Hong Kong are going to be in a very territorial mood next week, with no less than 17 foreign prides in town stalking the trophy for the best lion dancing team in the world.
This, Hong Kong's second International Lion Dance Invitation Tournament, will take place on January 21 and 22 at the Hong Kong Colisseum as the finale of the fortnight-long Lion Dance Festival, and will be a landmark event in the dance's 400 year-old history.
Not only has there never been such a tournament between so many lion dance teams from so many countries, but the competition will also see the inauguration of the World Dragon and Lion Dance Association, with headquarters in Hong Kong. And with the signing of the association documents, this ancient Chinese ritual will officially become a sport. Teams are due in from Australia, Brunei, China, Taiwan, Japan, Macau, Malaysia, Mauritius, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Britain and the United States.
Anywhere indeed (with the surprising exceptions of Canada and New Zealand) where there are Chinese communities large enough to support a local pride.
Last year the Malaysian Pasukan Tarian Singa Kun Sen Keng team proved to be the lion kings, with a performance that was not only technically nearly perfect, but also scored huge artistic points.
'The Malaysians are often the most adventurous,' admitted Cheng Man-fai, coach for one of Hong Kong's three hopes - the Cheng Man Fai Dragon-Lion Dance Team from Sai Kung. 'They try new moves, and use some innovative props.
'They have the best costumes as well.' He said his team had bought a Malaysian-made lion - with its lighter paper-and-bamboo head and more delicately ornate patterning - especially for the tournament.
His team of teenagers have been in training for the competition for months.
As well as two formal sessions a week of up to three hours each, the two dancers, who are both 16-year-old schoolboys, have a rigorous routine of running, press-ups and various martial arts, to ensure that they are in top condition.
'You need to be very fit to be a lion dancer,' Mr Cheng said. 'Some kids give up because it's too difficult.' He said the hardest routine is the dance along two parallel tightropes that have been stretched about two metres off the ground.
'The two dancers have to be really in tune with each other to make sure they don't fall off,' he said.
Lion dancing started in China around 400 years ago. The invading Manchus decided to forbid the practice of martial arts - which they found threatening - among their newly-conquered subjects, although they graciously allowed lion dancing to continue.
But the lions were used like Trojan horses: they looked so harmless with their bright colours and festive gongs and drums, but instead they were being used to wage war against the Manchus.
'For a while, because of the Manchus' ban on martial arts, lion dancing was the only legal way for men to train for combat,' explained Wai Kee-shun, chief adviser of the Hong Kong Chinese Martial Arts Association.
The northern and southern lions are different: the northern ones are more like real lions, while the southern ones are more symbolic - and far more athletic, he said: 'This is because in the south of China they developed more aggressive ways of using the dance like a martial art.' So the ritual of leaping up to pluck a head of lettuce suspended high above the lion's head, is actually part of the training to climb over city walls using poles and shields, and their bounding energetically on to high platforms was another assault tactic, Mr Wai explained.
In the past the southern lions were one of three colours - white to represent the wise older brother of the 'romance of the three kingdoms', red to represent the righteous middle brother, or black, for the brave youngest brother, indicated a fighting lion.
Nowadays they can be any colour, but the colour of the lion's beard - white, red or black - is often a good indicator of the age of the team's coach.
Mr Wai said he learned the art of lion dancing from his father's bodyguard, who was an expert in kung fu.
His father travelled around China selling patent medicine, 'and believe me, there was a lot of kidnapping in the 1930s; you needed a very good bodyguard'.
He drew on his later experiences of many different martial arts as well as lion and dragon-dancing, to help advise on a judging panel procedure that acknowledges the heavy cultural elements of the routines as well as their physical challenges.
There will be five points-giving judges, and five points-deducting judges, he explained.
'The points-giving judges will look at the performance and give marks for its artistic merit; the points-deducting ones look at the technical side,' he said.
'As in any sports events, the highest score and the lowest score are discounted, so the team scores the average of the middle. The judges get notes of the planned choreography in advance, so they know if there has been a mistake.
'If the dancers make a small mistake then they are probably OK, but if they make a major mistake they will certainly be disqualified. This is going to be a very tough tournament.' Saturday 21 (semi-finals) and Sunday January 22, Hong Kong Colisseum, Hunghom. Tickets cost $20, $40 from Urbtix. The HK Chinese Martial Arts Association will demonstrate their skills from 2 pm to 5 pm, Piazza Kowloon Park this Saturday and Garden Plaza, Hong Kong Park on Sunday. Free admission