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Chinese lion dance reinvented: can it end Hong Kong’s ‘identity crisis’?

Choreographer Daniel Yeung’s multimedia performance – part of New Vision Arts Festival – hopes to use contemporary dance to cultivate national heritage and end city’s post-colonisation struggles

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 September, 2018, 5:20pm
UPDATED : Friday, 28 September, 2018, 8:24pm

Hong Kong-born and locally trained choreographer Daniel Yeung has a mission.

As a home-grown artist, Yeung believes the arts have a major role to play in helping the city find its identity – something it has struggled with since 100 years of colonisation ended in 1997.

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He says that role involves cultivating works of art that inherit China’s rich cultural lineage while maintaining a personality that is true to Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong is in a unique position,” Yeung says.

“The stratosphere of our performing arts scene has long been very Westernised, rather than developed from our cultural roots.

Hong Kong is in a unique position. The stratosphere of our performing arts scene has long been very Westernised, rather than developed from our cultural roots
Daniel Yeung, choreographer

“As contemporary artists, we should transform and elaborate our traditions and heritage, presenting them to a global audience in contemporary ways.”

Yeung will put his words into action in his forthcoming show, Guan Yu’s Ride of 1,000 Miles, as part of the New Vision Arts Festival.

A multimedia experience running from November 9 to 11, Yeung’s show is a contemporary dance performance that reinvents southern lion dance, a long-standing Hong Kong tradition.

To create the choreography, Yeung is collaborating with Kwok’s Kung Fu & Dragon Lion Dance Team, with the troupe’s head coach Andy Kwok Man-lung as the lion dance theatre consultant.

Lions have long been considered auspicious symbols of power, glory and protection in China – a tradition derived from Buddhist India.

Stemming from the dramatic reimagination of the lives and stories of this powerful creature, lion dance is divided into southern and northern styles.

As contemporary artists, we should transform and elaborate our traditions and heritage, presenting them to a global audience in contemporary ways
Daniel Yeung

The two styles are distinctly different from each other, in everything from appearance and technique to footwork and storytelling.

There are two main schools of southern lion dance, Fut San (or Fo Shan) and Hok San (or He Shan), and their techniques have their origins in a form of kung fu that began in Guangdong.

Both blossomed in Hong Kong in the second half of the 20th century, as people fled from southern China during the second world war and the Cultural Revolution, when it was banned as a superstitious ritual, says Yeung, whose own version of lion dance stems from the southern schools.

These days, southern lion dance is mostly performed to bring good luck, woven into festivities such as Lunar New Year celebrations, site openings and parades such as the Cheung Chau Bun Festival.

Often absent from these celebratory performances are the storytelling and performative elements that were part of the original tradition.

As Hongkongers, we have a mission to regenerate lion dance
Daniel Yeung

One of the most common performances involves “plucking the green” – choi cheng in Cantonese: this auspicious ceremony sees a lion pluck a green lettuce from atop a pole outside a shop or doorway

Kwok, who inherited the martial arts troupe from his father Kwok Wing-cheong, says this performance, in fact, symbolises a physical and emotional journey the lion has to go through.

“The performers’ task is to keep the lion alive and demonstrate not only kung fu techniques, but also the lion’s character – he can be suspicious about his surroundings, wondering if he should step forward, while putting on a strong face and being feisty,” Kwok says.

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“The performance is a story about a lion’s adventure, and how he finally succeeds in reaching the goal.”

For Yeung, meanwhile, lion dance is highly theatrical.

“It’s total environmental theatre work,” he says.

“Performers adapt to their environment and they improvise. This is our very own Cantonese Chinese dance, but it was never introduced to students at dance schools.

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“Lion dance was imagined in a contemporary way in Hong Kong cinema during the 1980s and ’90s, in films such as Tsui Hark’s Wong Fei Hung series [which includes Once Upon A Time In China], but the follow-up was lacklustre.

“As Hongkongers, we have a mission to regenerate lion dance.”

Seeing the potential for a contemporary form of lion dance, Yeung collaborated with Kwok’s team in 2016 on a Hong Kong Dance Company project, 8/F Platform X – A Decade of Creativity, which brought contemporary dance and traditional lion dance together in an avant-garde artistic experiment.

Inviting artists from Hong Kong, Shanghai, Taiwan, Korea and Japan to learn about Cantonese lion dance, the project translated the traditional performance into the language of contemporary dance.

Yeung’s collaboration with Kwok went a step further last year when he staged ContempoLion at the launch of Swire Properties’ new ArtisTree in Taikoo Place, Quarry Bay.

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Combining aerial arts, contemporary dance, and interactive and live electronic music with the traditional Chinese dance form, the performance was well-received – and Kwok says it enriched his team’s performance skills.

“Our team members have great techniques, but they lack experience in stage performances. It helped us go further in the theatrical arts,” he says.

With their forthcoming show at the New Vision Arts Festival, Yeung and Kwok take the experiment to the next level, using contemporary dance to showcase the origins of southern lion dance.

Yeung – who is artistic director of the show – says its title comes from a significant chapter in the Chinese literary classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, an epic war novel set in the Three Kingdoms period (220 to 280AD), when China was divided into three states called Wei, Shu and Wu.

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The lions of southern lion dance are said to draw their forms from Liu Bei, the warlord who founded and ruled Shu, and his oath brothers, generals Guan Yu and Zhang Fei.

This show is the story of Guan Yu and his unshakeable faith in Liu Bei: despite not knowing if Liu is still alive, he determines to rescue Liu’s wives from the enemy, bringing them home again.

“It’s a story about brotherhood, loyalty and perseverance,” Yeung says.

However, he warns that the arts festival performance is not a straightforward narration of Guan’s journey.

“It’s a contemporisation of lion dance,” he says.

“We’re redeveloping this heritage that is uniquely Hong Kong and bringing it to the theatre.”