Chinese New Year isn’t complete without lion dancing. The plethora of red decorations, the lai see and the city’s huge fireworks display are all essential fixtures of the festive Lunar New Year experience, but it’s the lion dance that’s the ultimate symbol of good luck and prosperity.
Although the activity may not look particularly physically demanding, every gymnastic leap the lion dancers make is the result of years of practice. Master Kwok Man-lung has more than 30 years of experience teaching kung fu and lion dancing. He is the leader of Kwok’s Kung Fu & Dragon Lion Dance Team, a group that has won dozens of local and international championships in its time.
Kwok’s father founded the team and from the age of five he trained to become a lion dancer. Over the years, Kwok has witnessed many changes in the artform. Previously, the lion costumes were extremely heavy. There were no LED lights, no tall metal poles used in the acts and the lions came in only three varieties: red, black or rainbow. Lion dancing, at that time, in the 70s, was mostly rooted to the ground and based on traditional kung fu stances. The jumping element came later and costumes were adjusted to become lighter to accommodate the change. This ‘new lion dancing’, as Kwok coins it, took the art to a more competitive level and the master’s fondest memories are from his first days experimenting with these more daring techniques. “My happiest memory was when I first started jumping with my brethren,” reveals Kwok. “We’d try and we’d get hurt. And after the practice, we’d go to drink beer. And then we’d do it all over again. They were the best times. We’d try some crazy things and get injured. But, looking back, that was the best.”
Full of pride, Kwok rolls up his trousers and shows us the many scars that streak across his lower legs. “I call lion dancing the ‘Chinese-style X Games’,” he jokes, though with good reason. Some of the poles used in the most acrobatic displays are over five metres tall. The lions jump and spin from pole to pole but doing so requires immense co-ordination and trust between the two people manoeuvring the creature.
A lion is a double act, requiring both a head and a tail performer. “The head must be a good jumper. He has to leap high as well as focus on the performance,” says Kwok. But the tail is equally important, he tells us. “If there’s a fall, the tail must look to protect the head first.” Kwok, who was a tail himself, explains: “If you fall, the head can’t do anything about it. If the tail gives up and lets his partner fall... Next time he’s the tail, would you trust him?”
Lion dancing may seem fairly low risk but, just last year, an Australian lion dancer fell to his death during practice. Unperturbed, Kwok says the beauty of lion dancing is in the challenges. “It’s difficult,” he comments. “Not so many people can do it. That I can do it makes me proud of myself. I feel the challenge. When I’m jumping, I feel great satisfaction.”
Kwok wishes to promote lion dancing as something more than just a traditional form of dance. He’d like it seen as both a professional sport and a cultural art worth preserving. However, though Kwok is passionate about maintaining the traditions of lion dancing, he’s also a man open to change. “We always want to develop the lion dance in a competitive way,” he tells us. “We try new and difficult routines. We create new actions and we always try to make our dances more artistic.” Kwok’s team have even gone so far as to incorporate hip-hop into their latest routine. “To make it more modern and to make a sharp impact,” he says, “we call in a hip-hop dancer. We do the lion dance part and they do the Happy Buddha part.” The Happy Buddha is a playful character in the traditional lion dance who dances and ‘feeds’ the lion. “Our lion dance still has the traditional feel,” says Kwok, “but we make every effort to be fresh and modern.” Angela Kwon