Ornately decorated lion heads with bright wide eyes, bob and weave their way dexterously through the dense crowds at a Chinese New Year’s parade. This is an event that repeats itself at lunar New Year celebrations around the world. The lion symbolises joy and happiness and is used to summon luck and bring good fortune.
These Lion dance troupes performances are frequent throughout the twoweek Lunar New Year festivities. The lion dance is an integral part of Chinese culture dating back several millennia. Wherever there resides a Chinese community, this art form is found, which holds true for Malaysia.
|The Southern style lion||The lion heads are all handmade. A sturdy, good quality one can cost as much as RM3,000|
There are two lion dance styles that differ not only in the type of costumes worn by the lion dancers but also in the types of movement. In the Northern style, the lions have shaggy orange and yellow fur and a long mane. Their movements are very life-like, using their legs to prance dramatically.
While it’s also commonto see the family in pairs: two adults and two cubs. The Southern-style costumes feature a lion that more closely resembles the Nian, the fierce horned mythical beast that inspired many Chinese New Year traditions. The Southern lion’s head is shaped more like a dragon and has a drape. It can have two or four legs.
When performing, the Southern lion thrusts its head to the sound of drums, gongs and cymbals. The lion dancers must precisely coordinate their movements with those of the instruments.
The most commonly used colours for Southern-style lion dance costumes are red for bravery, green for friendship and goodwill – gold represents the lively, dynamic spirit. During a lion dance, the lion will also embark on a cai qing (plucking the greens). The greens, typically, is a head of lettuce sometimes suspended from a ceiling or doorway and to obtain, the lion must perform a choreographed lift routine.
|A Southern lion performing on stilts||The Northern style lions|
Once the lion ‘eats’ the greens, they are thrown toward the audience to represent wealth and good fortune. Inside the greens, the lion may find an ang pow. This offering symbolises good luck and is a reward for chasing away the evil spirits. Lion dancers are most often performed by students of Kung Fu.
So, the dances are full of energy and include feats of strength or agility like the lions balancing on balls. Both Northern and Southern styles can be found here in Malaysia, but the lion dance troupes here are predominantly Southern-style. This is attributed to the fact that the ancestors of most Malaysian Chinese came from Southern China.
Master Woh Chee Houw founded the Yang Wu Martial Arts & Lion Dance Troupe (Southern style) in Kuala Lumpur. Master Woh swapped his career in sales three years ago to pursue a life-long passion for Chinese martial arts and lion dance. “I’ve been a Kung Fu practitioner most of my life, and my love for lion dance stems from that very background,” the 37-year-old said.
“Even before I gave up my career in sales, I have been involved with several lion dance troupes on a part-time basis for 19 years; I’ve trained, performed and assisted in management of these troupes.” Master Woh explained the evolution of the lion dance; one of the key components is the size of the lion head, which has been classified into three categories – one down to three.
Category 1 is the largest size that dominated until 20 years ago. The reason for its decline is linked to modern architecture more than a cultural change, due to the advent of downsizing in many modern buildings and houses. It’s a simple issue of not being able to fit through the door that has led to its decline.
This led to the introduction of the category 2 lion head, 25% smaller than category 1; it is currently the most widely used lion head. Category 3 is the smallest, mostly used for practice by younger lion dancers-in-training. Also, the smaller the lion head, the less the weight.
Master Woh Chee Houw (right) observing his percussion crew in a practice session
Master Woh explains that heads weigh from 11kg for category 1 down to 6kg in the category 3. The idea of carrying out the physically demanding work in the routine while holding one of the heads at arm’s length is energy sapping for even the fittest person so it’s no wonder the dancers need to be fit to participate in these routines that last from 15 to 30 minutes. There are many types of dance, while some are more popular than others.
“We do get special requests from some wealthy clients to perform the ‘Drunken Lion’, one of the most popular and most exhausting forms of lion dance. The ‘Drunken Lion’ is actually a reflection of a popular Chinese martial arts technique, ‘the Drunken Fist’,” Master Woh explains with a smile.
“Depending on how deep the client’s pocket is, this dance can last for as long as 2 hours!” When asked why he chose to devote his life to this profession, Master Woh explained, “I want to contribute to the local Chinese community by offering my skills and knowledge in preserving this age-old art form so that it can be passed on from one generation to the next; to help ensure that this significant part of the Chinese cultural heritage lives on.”
The Yang Wu crew consists of youngsters from all walks of life, ranging from primary school students to young adults. All of them are volunteers. “The Yang Wu Martial Arts & Lion Dance Troupe is a non-profit organisation,” said Master Woh, “we are doing it for the love of the art.”
A ‘pride’ of lions
Another one of the missions of Master Woh in establishing Yang Wu is to provide some life lessons to the young ones. “I want these kids to have fun learning about this art form and performing it. But I also want them to know that lion dance is all about team effort, therefore I want to instill teamwork, self discipline, time management, mutual respect, dedication, responsibility, integrity and honour into their minds.
Hopefully, they can apply what they have learned here in other aspects of their lives and strive to become a better human being,” adds Master Woh.