Lion dancing is a Chinese cultural art form steeped in symbolism. In Chinese culture, this auspicious beast symbolises power, wisdom and superiority. It is meant to bring good luck to those celebrating Lunar New Year and is also traditionally performed at other special occasions such as weddings or the opening of a new business.
Reviving interest in an almost-extinct artform
The Lion Dance is an important part of Chinese culture, and it is performed at Chinese New Year, festivals, celebrations, and other events.
There are two main types of lion dance troupes, which are familiar to Malaysians. There are the northern lions (originated from northern China), whose heads, bodies and legs are covered with golden-yellow “fur”.
Southern lions (originating in Southern China) are more common in Sarawak. The heads and bodies are many different colours, like yellow, red, silver, green, purple and so on.
The Hakka Green Lions
The Hakka Green Lions, which originated in Southern China’s Guangdong province, are a unique type of lion to the Hakka dialect community.
The lion’s head is slightly square, usually green in colour, with the Chinese word “wang” (which means “king”) painted on its forehead, which represents the king of all beasts.
There is also a “ba gua” (eight trigram) symbol on its forehead. It is a Taoist symbol that can ward off evil spirits and bring good luck. These two symbols combined to make the Hakka Green Lion King (as the Chinese called it) the most powerful of all the lion heads.
Thus, it is usually invited to perform during some religious rituals, Chinese New Year, Chap Goh Mei, Chinese religious processions, celebrations, as well as the official opening of temples, businesses or corporate premises.
The mouth of the Hakka lion is wide and rectangular, with a moveable lower jaw and two rows of white teeth.
The lion’s mouth can open and close, showing vivid and life-like actions during performance.
Two interesting characters with comical actions are the Shun Wu Kung (monkey god) and the Big Head Monk, who sometimes accompany the performance of the Hakka lions.
I vividly remember that when I was young, the first type of lion dance troupe that I witnessed was this Hakka Green Lion, which made a house-to-house visit to bless the homes in my hometown of Lundu during the Chinese New Year.
The performance is believed to ward off evil elements and bring good luck to the families that the lion troupes visit.
According to the Malaysia Hakka Cultural Association (MHCA) Sarawak, the Hakka Lions were popular during the 1980’s but gradually declined after that.
Over the past few years, efforts have been stepped up to rekindle the interest of the Hakka community in this unique and rare lion performance, which may face the crisis of being almost “extinct.”
Recently, in Kuching, the MHCA Sarawak successfully organised two important events in conjunction with the Kuching Festival to promote the Hakka Lion Dance.
The first was the creation of two giant Hakka Green Lions, which have successfully been entered into the Malaysia Book of Records as the “Biggest Hakka Lion Dance Costume” on August 19. Each of the lions measured 10.25 ft tall, 7 ft wide and 18 ft long.
The master craftsman for the creation of the two giant lion costumes is from my hometown, Lundu, Bong Tsu Hoi, aged 74, who is a second-generation lion head costume maker and lion dance shifu (instructor), who inherited the skills from his late father, Ten Kwang Sia.
It was a challenging attempt. Bong managed to complete it in the given time frame of about one and a half months.
He worked days and nights to complete the task with the help of members of the family, while his wife, Chang Kim Keau, aged 72 helped to sew the coloured pieces of cloth to make the lions’ “bodies”.
What’s more, the massive lion costumes aren’t just for show; they can actually be used to perform the lion dance. Each of the lions needs six performers, instead of two as in the normal lion dance troupe.
This was the second record created by the association after the “Most Hakka Lions Dance” performance, comprising 71 lions, in January 2020, at CityONE Megamall in Kuching, which also entered the Malaysia Book of Records.
Lion Dance Competition
The second activity organised by the MHCA Sarawak recently was the inaugural Hakka Lion Dance Championship, which was held at MBKS on August 20.
The competition was attended by 10 troupes from Kuching, Batu Kawa, Bau, Lundu, Sri Aman, Bintulu and Miri.
The champion was Miri Wai Sheng Dragon and Lion Dance Troupe; second was Lundu FoShun Hakka Lion Dance Troupe; and third was Feng Sheng Hakka Lion King Team (Batu Kawa).
According to Bong, the first Hakka lion troupe in Lundu was formed in the early 1960s by his father.
He is now the instructor for the Lundu FoShun Hakka Lion Dance Troupe. The troupe has received a good response from the public and has been invited to perform at various functions like the opening of business premises.
In May this year, the troupe was invited to perform in a Malay village, Kampung Kuala Bandang in Lundu, to bless the wedding of a Chinese-Malay couple.
Hakka Lions at Siniawan
At Siniawan Heritage Old Town, where the majority of the residents are Hakka, many Hakka Lion Dance troupes are usually invited to take part in the annual Chap Goh Mei procession, which forms a special feature of the procession that attracts many visitors from far and near, including foreign tourists.
Recently, a mural artist from Bau, Fook Liew, just completed a wall mural in an alley in the old town which depicted the Hakka Lion Dance.
The idea of covering the bare wall with murals came from the chairman of the Siniawan Village Development Committee, Kapitan Bong Boon Kah, and Liew suggested that the Hakka Lion Dance would be an appropriate theme for the mural to promote the Hakka Lions, and it was agreed by the committee.
A working committee was formed, and the Bau Jixiang Ruyi (Jxry) Hakka Lion Dance Troupe was invited to perform at the site in order to study the shape, size, actions, and poses of the lions. Two photographers, Danny Lee and Simon Bong, took photographs for reference purposes during the planning process.
It took Liew over two months, including working nights, to complete the task. The figures are painted in an enlargement of 1:1.5. It depicts the actions of the Hakka Green Lions, accompanied by a monkey god and a big-headed monk on the right and two kids in red-coloured traditional costumes on the left, giving the painting a Chinese New Year mood. It is brightly lit at night.
It is now a bright spot in the usually quiet alley of the old town and has become a place for visitors to take photographs during their visits to Siniawan town.