The signature sound of drums and the clang of cymbals marks the arrival of the Lunar New Year. For many people of Chinese heritage, these are the sounds that herald a long-awaited festive celebration, having been absent in 2021 due to Covid-19 lockdowns.
Lion dance troupes were not spared from the lockdowns that affected many industries the world over. In Seattle, the Mak Fai Kung Fu Club, established in 1974, was forced to shut down for months on end.
“During that time, it was right after the 2020 Chinese New Year season as we were training for an upcoming national competition. There were no classes and no bookings for at least six months,” recounts Royal Tan, chief instructor of the troupe. “[Even in 2021] our Chinese New Year shows dropped by about 40 percent. Now with more openings, things are pretty much [back to] normal, with the fact everyone still follows mask procedures and proper sanitizing.”
The troupe performs all year round, with Chinese New Year being the busiest – with about 100 shows a season, and weddings and grand openings making up another 100 shows in the off-season.
According to Tan, the lion dance dates back thousands of years in China.
“Although it is a national art, it is mostly popular in Southern China in the Canton (Guangdong) province, as well as in Hong Kong. The lion dance is used for all types of occasions such as Lunar New Year, grand openings, weddings, birthdays and much more. It is a symbol of good luck and prosperity.”
“The type of lion most commonly used is the Southern lion, differentiated into the Foshan and Heshan styles. Foshan lions look more fierce and their movements are powerful with strong footwork derived from the martial arts. Heshan lions have a flat mouth and animal-like movements.”
“The Northern lion is popular in Beijing as it was used throughout history to entertain the emperor. It more closely resembles an actual lion and the movements are acrobatic. Over time, the acrobatic movements of the northern lion have slowly been incorporated with southern lions,” he explained.
The local community's perception of lion dance has changed since the club was first established in the 1970s.
“Back in the days, lion dance was perceived as gang-related. Many parents didn’t allow their kids to participate in learning kung fu and lion dancing. But now it is considered a sport, and widely taught at public schools as extracurricular activities. Our school is a traditional kung fu school. We teach younger generations how to respect others and themselves as well as the values of learning Chinese martial arts. With lion dancing getting more popular amongst our area, we focus heavily on the sport. With the power of social media, more people are becoming aware of the existence of lion dancing, especially in the US,” Tan explains.
“Our clients who book lion dancing are a mix of Asians and Americans. Americans mainly hire us for their corporate events, especially during Lunar New Year for the many tech companies in our area. We also perform often in Seattle’s Chinatown. The more often we perform, the more people will know about our group,” he continues.
The club aims to promote lion dancing in the Greater Seattle area and keep the tradition alive by teaching the younger generations in the community.
“Many of our students are recruited from high schools. Not everyone is of Chinese descent – we have Vietnamese, Japanese and Filipinos as well. It is good to share this culture with everyone. We keep the tradition alive by passing it down from one generation to another. We operate like a close knitted family, where everyone takes care of each other and hangs out before and after practices,” Tan says.
In high demand
In Malaysia, lion dance performances can be seen all year long for the enjoyment of all Malaysians, no matter their racial background.
For JunWai Dragon and Lion Dance, bookings and inquiries came pouring in the moment Malaysia’s Covid-19 restrictions for the fully vaccinated were relaxed in August 2021.
Its founder Dato’ David Mak said there were no Chinese New Year celebrations last year due to the lockdown, hence many are hoping to celebrate this year.
“Due to the movement control order (MCO), many companies were forced to postpone their store openings. Now that the restrictions have eased, they can finally launch their businesses and need us to draw in the crowd with lion dance performances,” he said.
Based in Kuala Lumpur, the troupe has also received invitations to perform up north in Penang and down south in Johor Bahru.
However, even with eased restrictions, there are many who are still wary about going out in public especially with the Omicron wave.
Master Siow Ho Phiew, who founded Wan Seng Hang Dragon & Lion Arts and the Subang Hong Teck lion dance troupe, said the pandemic has deeply affected lion dance troupes and parents are wary about letting their kids attend lion dance classes at the moment.
Master Siow Ho Phiew, Photo Credit: Oh Ing Yeen
As the head coach for the award-winning Kun Seng Keng Lion and Dragon Dance Association, Siow has students from as young as seven up to those in their 70s. The 66-year-old master began developing an interest in lion dance six decades ago: “It was uncommon to see lion dance performances then. Now, it is uncommon to not see it. Why is it such a common scene? We have people of all races who enjoy the performances; companies hoping to attract a crowd would therefore hire lion dance troupes,” he said.
Coincidentally, Mak Fai Kung Fu Dragon & Lion Dance Association procured some of their lion heads from Wan Seng Hang. Siow said of the 400-plus lion heads they make a year, more than half are exported overseas. It takes them eight to nine days to make one.
At his workshop, aside from lion heads, there are also tiger heads in preparation for the Year of the Tiger. According to Siow, the tiger dance, which is lesser-known compared to its lion counterpart, dates back 300 years ago. It was featured in the 2010 Chinese New Year movie Tiger Woohoo, in which Siow appeared in. Now, 12 years later, it is finally geared to make a comeback.
Cover Credit: Yiran Ding/Unsplash
Writer | Oh Ing Yeen
Ing Yeen is a freelance photojournalist and TV addict who writes about culture, lifestyle, fashion and entertainment and aspires to be a hotel tester and professional chocolate taster.