Taking a lion's leap from HK to Down Under

INCREASING numbers of Chinese immigrants and a recessionary economy at home have prompted three Australians to head east to learn the secrets of a traditional commercial enterprise in Hongkong: the lion dance.

Arthur Economou, Tony Stojic and Samuel Eisocovigh gave up their jobs in Sydney three months ago and came to Hongkong in a bid to save their ailing kung fu school - the International Yau Kung Mun - from the claws of recession.

They plan a heroic return, lion-dancing their way to a mini-fortune to prop up the school, and in the process dazzling the growing number of firms opening in Sydney's Chinatown with a spectacular dance routine.

Mr Economou, a 24-year-old former accountant with biscuit maker George Weston, said: ''Chinatown is pretty big in Sydney, and come Chinese New Year everyone hangs money up to be taken [by the lion].

''Big places - restaurants and shops - always make money, and they will pay a lot to have a show like this in Australia, especially now with more people moving out of Hongkong and taking up residency.'' The three took up kung fu four years ago, after flirting with martial arts including karate and tai kwon do, and started to learn lion dance routines as a means of supporting the school.

But lion dances Australian-style lack the razzmatazz of a full-blown Hongkong routine, and have been copied many times, making for a dull spectacle, they say.

In Australia, a routine floor show pulls in about A$400 (about HK$2,080) to A$500.

Mr Economou said: ''If you take something like this back you could earn maybe A$1,000 a show, and that would really help the school.

''There is never really enough money. If we do earn extra money here, perhaps from movies, it all goes back to Australia to build a place where we can train and live.'' The three spend their Hongkong evenings rehearsing in cramped halls, and they avoid beer and junk food.

The group give up to four performances a day, and had up to 14 over Lunar New Year.

This austerity - contradicting the Australian beer-and-surf stereotype - extends to studying Cantonese, the better to follow instructions and absorb the wisdom of their master in Australia, Mr Leung Cheung.

This young-looking 70-year-old is well-known in Australia for his kung fu and herbal medicine.

The three say he is the inspiration behind their love of the art.

His equivalent in Hongkong is Mr Ha Kwok-cheung, whose teaching is largely carried out through his son Ha Ta-kin.

In three months, the Western lion dancers have aroused curious stares at openings at the Jockey Club, the Excelsior Hotel and the Cultural Centre.

They plan to stay in Hongkong for two years, by which time they count on being fully versed in the intricacies of lion dancing.

''There is no money to be made in Australia now, especially teaching kung fu. It's like everything else, you need to sell it but you need money to sell. We are going to go back and make it better,'' Mr Stojic said.