Past and future: Chinese Lion Dance in Penang

Updated: 17 Jan 2014
Photos by Su Aziz

The lion dance, mainly performed during the Lunar New Year to ward off bad luck, is grace and skill in motion. Su Aziz chats with a master about its history and future.

Decades ago, according to lion dance master Divino Kok, the lion dance was a performance that could last up to two hours. Unlike today, where a 10-minute performance is filled with acrobatics atop stilts as tall as seven metres, the lions used to prance only on the ground. Their movements, however, were no less entrancing and neither were their skills. The challenge is in controlled movements for long periods of time, showing off a lion dancer's agility, strength and stamina.

Amid the deafening ‘tong, tong, chiang’, Kok’s troupe of lion dancers hop from one stilt to another, as limber as if in flight, graceful and soft-pawed as cats. First, the drum pounds hard and the two lions, both on the ground, playfully shake their heads. This is their ‘awakening’. Then, with small tentative steps, they move forward towards the foot of the ‘hill’ – represented by the stilts – where the journey to find the ‘ching’ or food begins.



An Epic Diminished
‘The awakening, looking for the ching, discovering the ching and returning from the search all used to take about an hour,’ says Kok. ‘Then there was the Laughing Buddha that has been eliminated from the modern version of lion dance altogether.’ But why? The Laughing Buddha was the fun element; the funny chap who egged on the lions.

‘It took too long to awaken him,’ Kok replies. ‘He needed to brush his teeth, wash his face, open the temple doors, ring the temple bells, play the drums and then play with the lions before looking for the ching. It was an epic. Lengthy. And today, with the increasing demand for lion dance performances, we don’t have the time.’

Kok agrees that it’s a pity, because despite its humorous role, it took as much skill to play the part as a lion dancer. ‘The Laughing Buddha required martial arts movements, just like a lion dancer and even more controlled since he has all the actions. But these days people want to see excitement, like the lions jumping higher and higher on the stilts.’

Luck and Limber
A lion dancer begins as a martial arts student at a very young age. Kok himself trained first in martial arts then as a lion dancer when he was 10 years old. Today, over three decades later, he has a troupe of more than 100 students, from 10 years old to their mid-20s, attached to Ching Xing Sport Cultural Centre, which he co-founded. These students of Chow Chia Chuen martial arts style are divided into groups of eight or 10, rehearsing at night and performing wherever they are invited.

Suddenly, the clash of the cymbals signals the silencing of the drums. The lions, now both at the peak of the ‘hill’ have found the ching. Silence prevails for another minute; the lions’ heads swish to the left and right and their eyelids flutter as they cautiously sniff at the imaginary food. With a super-loud pounding of the drum, both lions jump and twirl to face each other before heading down the hill with their treasure. All hell breaks loose – cymbals crash, a gong clangs and the drum pounds so hard that your heart feels as if it will explode.



Effortlessly, the lions hop and twirl playfully down the hill, bringing with them the ching to present to the host of the venue. This symbol of luck is normally an orange or a pomelo. ‘Something circular or round is a sign of luck for the Chinese,’ explains Kok. ‘Depending on what the host prefers, the orange is presented to him whole or peeled to symbolise a bloom or flower.’

More than Culture, It’s a Sport
The Lion Dance, as Kok points out, is not religious. ‘It’s cultural. It may have been a little religious in the very old days but it has evolved into a cultural event. And today, it has become a sport,’ he smiles proudly. With that in mind, his troupes perform within eight to 10 minutes, in accordance with competition guidelines.

‘We used to make our own lion heads and costume,’ Kok confides. ‘But it took too much time. And so it wasn’t worth it. Nowadays we can get a full gear of lion head and costume for around RM1,500.’ Recently, to fill the demands of the coming Year of the Snake, his centre bought 18 new sets. ‘We had a huge ceremony of awakening the lion heads,’ he says fondly. ‘This is to officiate the heads, rouse them from slumber and into a new life.’

Kok hopes and aspires for the Lion Dance to become a fully recognised sport internationally – even up to the Olympics level – governed by guidelines drawn up by the grand masters. This, he believes, will keep this tradition immortal, sensational and absolutely heart-stopping.



As featured in Time Out Penang's 50 things to do in Penang. Check our Chinese New Year Activities compilation for a chance to catch a Lion Dance performance here.

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