It begins with the sharp beat of drums. Hundreds of Hongkongers have stood together for hours to hear the beats that signal the beginning of the fire dragon dance – a colourful and atmospheric ritual first performed in Tai Hang village in 1880 to ward off a plague. Now a different disease is at large around the world, and the dragon will once again dance to bring health and luck – albeit virtually. Almost every year, the night before the Mid-Autumn Festival, a fire dragon has danced through Tai Hang, a neighbourhood on Hong Kong Island. For three nights in all, the dragon – woven from a coarse grass, festooned with burning incense sticks and held aloft by dozens of performers – weaves its way through the narrow streets. Though the colourful tradition has been cancelled for the second year running because of the Covid-19 pandemic , organisers have found ways to mark this year’s festivities, such as posting past performances on YouTube – to bring good fortune to the entire city. What’s more, in November the Tai Hang Fire Dragon Heritage Centre is expected to open to introduce the history and culture behind the annual dance to a wider public. The dragon, said to come from the sky, has witnessed a profound metamorphosis of its earthly destination over the past 140 years. Tai Hang, near Causeway Bay, once a poor fishing village of modest one- and two-storey houses, is now a fashionable and thriving neighbourhood – a mix of post-war low-rise buildings and newer high-rises – with a variety of small businesses old and new. One of the few constants through its history is the fire dragon. Behind the preservation of the annual ritual is Tai Hang’s tightly knit community, which has continually supported the fire dragon dance . One man’s dedication to the heritage handed down by past villagers stands out. Chan Tak-fai has been involved in the tradition of the fire dragon his entire life. Recognised by Beijing for his central role in the Tai Hang fire dragon dance, which was inscribed on the National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2011, Chan is both humble and friendly. The six years he served in the British armed forces in his early 20s have given him a sense of honour and dignity. He says: “I believe I am carrying out and preserving a special tradition.” Chan’s father used to be a fire dragon dancer, as was every male villager in Tai Hang in the early days. From its birth in the 1860s until the 1960s, it was inhabited almost entirely by Hakka people. The Hakka, or “guest families”, are Han Chinese who moved from northern to southern China in a series of migrations beginning in 200BC. They settled in Hong Kong from 1700 and speak Hakka, a Chinese dialect distinct from Mandarin and Cantonese. The tradition began in 1880 when, so the legend goes, Tai Hang suffered a plague that was dispelled only after villagers built a dragon from straw and covered it with lit joss sticks. The dance became a yearly event and every villager was obliged to take part. “In the old days, all male villagers had to participate in the dance as dancers, while all the female villagers had to cut and collect grass that built up the fire dragon,” Chan says. He remembers touching the dragon’s head and taking part in his first-ever dance, brandishing a cloud-shaped lantern, when he was five or six. Holding up small cloud- and star-shaped lanterns has always been the responsibility of Tai Hang’s children. In the early days, he says, the dance was strictly a village affair with no onlookers – “It was just us Hakka people and no one else!” – and with no bystanders filling the streets, locals threw fireworks to the fire dragon when it moved past their homes. In the early 1960s, Tai Hang’s two-storey houses were rebuilt as six-storey buildings. The bigger buildings could accommodate more residents and non-Hakka people moved into the neighbourhood. Gradually, they began to take part in the fire dragon dance, too. Chan began dancing in the fire dragon ritual when he was 14, in 1960. He became commander-in-chief of the event in 1997, and leads about 200 men every year in the dragon dance. “My village elders thought I was well suited for the job because I have closely witnessed the tradition my whole life,” he explains. External factors have twice prevented the fire dragon from dancing, once during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong in the 1940s, and once in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic. Another community in Hong Kong, Pok Fu Lam , also stages a fire dragon dance. Today, the community in Tai Hang is as tightly knit as ever. Chan is proud to report that people who leave Tai Hang come back every year – from other parts of the city, even from abroad. “In the whole of Hong Kong, people of Tai Hang are the happiest group of people during the Mid-Autumn Festival,” Chan says. Once the fire dragon performs its last dance on the third night, it returns to the sky. Soon, the only remnants of the dragon’s visit to Tai Hang are the colourful confetti scattered on the streets and the lingering smell of incense. Both are gone by the following day. Every year, Chan engages in the familiar months-long routine of bringing the fire dragon back to life. After the dance, he relaxes: the fire dragon’s visit to Tai Hang has been successful. A good year and good health for everyone has been wished for. “I will carry out my duty until I can’t work any more,” he says. “I will play the role of the village elders who would stand by to make sure everything was going well when I was young. Until I can’t.” Like what you read? Follow SCMP Lifestyle on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram . You can also sign up for our eNewsletter here .