The endangered lion in the Lion City

The endangered lion in the Lion City
Members of the Kong Chow Wui Koon's lion dance troupe. The lion dance troupe was established in 1939, and counts itself as one of the pioneers in Singapore's lion dance scene, while a dragon dance team was formed in 1980.
PHOTO: AsiaOne

Behind the cacophony of the drums and cymbals, two performers are sweating profusely beneath a lion dance costume.

Their movements are deft and precise like clockwork, as the 'lion' adroitly approaches the lettuce perched precariously on the ceiling - a routine known as 'cai qing', or 'plucking the greens'.

Lion dance is, perhaps, a reflection of the Chinese race - the myriad of dialects, traditions, and cultures finding its place in the modern society.

With its glitzy costumes and dazzling gravity-defying moves, modern lion dance troupes march to the beat of a different drum, attracting plenty of fanfare and members.

Unlike their modern counterparts who practice freestyle movements and are not bound by tradition, traditional lion dance troupes are bucking the trend, holding fast to tradition against the grip of modernisation.

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For the undiscerning, the modern makeover makes for an enthralling performance, but these freestyle movements are usually eschewed by traditional lion dance troupes.

This Chinese New Year, AsiaOne went behind the scenes at one of Singapore's oldest Chinese clan associations, Kong Chow Wui Koon, as its members practised the art of traditional lion dance.


A bastion for the traditional lion dance

It's been 27 years since Mr Francis Wong donned the lion dance costume, but he remembers that day vividly.

"When I put on the lion head for the first time, I was 14 years old," recounted Mr Wong, the gongfu chief instructor and a lion dance practitioner at Kong Chow Wui Koon.

"Back then, I felt that the lion head was very heavy. As we trained, we had a lot of small injuries on our fingers and neck," the 41-year-old said.

"When I finally got to perform, there was a lot of satisfaction because it is like a flower blossoming after a lot of hard work."

With the frame of the lion's head weighing 3kg to 4kg, performing under it after a few minutes can get arduous.

But the weight of today's lion dance costume pales in comparison to that of yesteryear.

"In the past, the lion head was huge and fierce, and the lion tail was very long," said Mr Wong.

"When our ancestors did lion dancing, they faced more hardship than us."

At Kong Chow Wui Koon's training grounds, a majestic display of retired lion dance frames adorn the hall. Wooden dummies used for gongfu training - immortalised in the movie Ip Man - stand imposingly in a corner, making the hall look like a scene from a gongfu movie.

Retired lion dance heads line the walls of Kong Chow Wui Koon Photo: AsiaOne

Founded in 1840, Kong Chow Wui Koon is one of the oldest Chinese clan associations in Singapore. Its lion dance troupe, established in 1939, counts itself as one of the pioneers in Singapore's lion dance scene, while a dragon dance team was formed in 1980.

Situated in the heart of Chinatown, Kong Chow Wui Koon's conserved premises - built in 1924 - is a bastion for the traditional lion dance.

Clans like Kong Chow Wui Koon and The Singapore Hok San Association are exceptions in the lion dance circuit numbering over 300, where many troupes have ditched tradition for the modernistic freestyle moves.

Behind the glamour of the flourishing freestyle acts, the traditional art is now under threat in modern day Singapore.

"Over the years, Kong Chow Wui Koon lion and dragon dance troupe is more focused on conserving the art and we have never been short of manpower until recently," admits Mr Wong.

Unlike other troupes which are more commercialised, the members of Mr Wong's 100-strong troupe, which perform under the banner of the clan, are all volunteers. Of the 100 volunteers, around 60 are active members, with the youngest aged 10 years old, while the eldest is around 75 years old.

Chinese New Year performances are the main source of income for most troupes, but not for Kong Chow Wui Koon.

"All of the 'plucking the green' ang pows (red packets from Chinese New Year performances) are collected and given back to the clan committee," said Mr Wong.

"In turn, it generates revenue for our future activities in Singapore and overseas."

While the troupe may need to perform at least 10 times daily during Chinese New Year - usually for clan members and their businesses - it isn't their busiest period yet. The peak period falls in June, when preparations for the clan anniversary go into full swing.

Mr Wong said during Chinese New Year, they are mainly preoccupied with planning their schedule for performances, but "training wise, we are all-round ready".

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The lion's denizens

But this high level of readiness demands a gruelling training schedule. With training conducted twice weekly on Friday and Saturday nights all through the year, becoming a lion dance practitioner requires a lot of commitment and hard work.

Everybody in the troupe will be put through the paces to learn the different roles required: drum, cymbal, gong, lion tail and lion head.

Members are then assessed to see their suitability for the different roles, Mr Wong explained.

"The (person controlling the) lion tail needs to have a powerful stance. The lion head must also have a very strong martial arts base so that both of them can co-operate accordingly," he said.

The Chinese characters for lion dance used to be 'martial arts' and 'lion' (武狮), Mr Wong explained, unlike its modern-day variant of 'dance' and 'lion' (舞狮), which sounds phonetically similar. This adherence to its pugilistic roots is another key aspect of traditional lion dance.

A photo of Mr Francis Wong in a pugilistic stance is on display at Kong Chow Wui Koon.Photo: AsiaOne
A frame explaining Kong Chow Wui Koon gongfu's lineage Photo: AsiaOne

Much like a theatre performance, coordination between the performers and 'orchestra' is also crucial.

"Some say that the lion performance follows the drumbeat, and sometimes, people say the drumbeat follows the lion's movement," said Mr Wong.

"In the past, it is the drummer that follows the lion's movements. The drum will coordinate and come out with the drumbeat that suits the lion's movement."

Ultimately, the whole lion dance performance boils down to teamwork, Mr Wong said. A full team typically comprises of six practitioners, although there are usually more members during performances.

"The turnover rate of our practitioners is quite high. The guys need to go for NS (national service). We are a developed society. Many students and practitioners are more involved in work and their personal lives," explained Mr Wong.

"We are quite open. During the training days, we do not make it compulsory for people to mark attendance," he added.

Like many other lion dance troupes, Kong Chow Wui Koon is also open to women and other races.

"(They like) the Chinese culture, especially in the form of lion dancing and martial arts. People are very passionate and curious, but they find that it's not so easy when they take part in our training," revealed Mr Wong.

"Most of the time, a lot of the students will just shy away. Ultimately, out of 10, you have one or two that maintain the training with us."

It is also hard to shake off misconceptions about its links to secret societies, said Mr Wong, who said that it was time to move on from that stereotype.

"These people are our ancestors. They came to Singapore to build a home because of hardships in China, so I think we should not penalise them for their backgrounds but we should try our best to preserve the tradition that is being brought over by our ancestors," he said.

Mr Wong, who is a full-time financial service consultant, noted that the profiles of most of its members are different from the older generation.

He said: "Most of us are more educated, and we come from very decent backgrounds.

"We do have websites that promote our activities and a portfolio explaining our efforts to promote the lion dance art in China and around the world, especially the traditional form."

A look inside one of Singapore's oldest lion dance troupes

To counter the dwindling membership, clan members are also encouraged to bring their family members and relatives to join its activities such as lion dance and martial arts.

Mr Wong speaks from experience. As a third-generation clansman of Kong Chow Wui Koon, Mr Wong grew up watching his father train up a new generation of lion dance practitioners.

Lion dance isn't just about bravado. As one of the instructors taking over the mantle, Mr Wong sees a deeper purpose in lion dancing.

"When I teach, I feel that I am passing something useful to the next generation. I also feel that I am also polishing my skills and it allows me to know more about our Chinese traditions.

For example, the tradition of 'cai qing' can take two literal translations: 'Plucking the greens' or 'Stepping on the Qing Dynasty'.

"In the past, a lot of gongfu practitioners who do lion dance are very patriotic. So 'plucking the green' those days is more than for auspicious reasons," said Mr Wong.

"Lion dance is not just a performance. It is a patriotic spirit that we are trying to bring down to the next generation.

"To me, lion dancing is about loving your country."

The lion may be endangered, but it is inside the clan halls of Kong Chow Wui Koon, where purists can seek refuge against the test of time.

grongloh@sph.com.sg


5 things you didn't know about Chinese lion dance

1. 'Cai Qing' has a hidden meaning

In today's context, Cai Qing is literally translated as 'plucking the green', which has an auspicious connotation.

In the old days, Cai Qing had political overtones. Another literal translation of Cai Qing is 'Stepping on the Qing Dynasty'.

Kong Chow Wui Koon was founded in 1840 during the Qing Dynasty, and its members were Han Chinese who were against the Manchu rulers.

Many of the clan's members were also kungfu practitioners who did lion dance.

Hence, Cai Qing was an act of defiance against the Qing Dynasty, and the performance embodies the patriotic spirit.

2. Members are now more educated

Many lion dance troupes had secret society influences in the past, but less so in this day and age. In fact, many schools now offer lion dance as a co-curricular activity.

The demographics of lion dance practitioners have also changed, with more educated people joining the ranks.

3. Not everybody can be the lion tail

Every member must learn the different roles before they specialise in one based on their talents.

In lion dancing, the lion tail needs to have a powerful stance. Hence, the role is usually reserved for someone with a bigger frame. The member behind the lion head needs to have a very strong martial arts base so the both of them can co-operate accordingly.

A full team comprises of at least six members, including the lion head and the lion tail. There are usually at least three members playing the cymbals, and a drummer. Occasionally, there is someone playing the gong too.

4. It gets hot, very hot

It can get very hot under the lion dance costume, especially during Chinese New Year when troupes may need to perform under the hot sun. It is not easy, especially for the lion tail.

Ultimately, lion dance, like all performances, require precise coordination and chemistry between the team members. It boils down to practise, practise, and more practise.

5. Some people do this for free

It is now a common practice for the ang pow money to be distributed among team members, but in certain troupes, members are volunteers.

In that case, the ang pow money is managed by a committee for its fundraising activities.

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