Chinese New Year will be upon us before you know it, and our eyes and ears will be filled with the sights and sounds of red, gold, and even LED-illuminated lions, and lots of drumming. But here are some things we bet you didn’t know about the CNY-must have: the lion dance.
There Are Many Types Of Lion Dances
During a Northern lion dance, a lion and a lionesses dance in sync. (Image: Zoe Liew)
There’s the Northern lion dance and then there's the Southern lion dance. There are two types of Southern lion dances though. Confused? We’ll walk you through it. According to one Chinese legend, lions were not natively found in ancient China, but brought by the Persians to Northern China, hence, the lions of Northern lion dances have long manes and shaggy fur just like real lions. People in the Southern provinces had never seen lions before and could only rely on the grapevine and their imagination, and so the lions of the Southern dances look nothing like the lions we know in real life.
Southern lion dances require the dancers to express the lions’ cheerfulness, happiness, surprise, and other emotions. (Image: Zoe Liew)
The Southern dances can be further divided into the Hok San and Fut San dances. Hok San is what we’re used to seeing in Malaysia during CNY and the lions are usually more emotionally expressive, while lots of powerful kungfu moves, punches, kicks, and stances are incorporated into Fut San. In fact, the dancers will even perform a series of martial arts moves right after the dance. It’s the type of dance you’ll usually see in Wong Fei Hung movies. Hai-yaaaaaaaa!
You're Never Too Young To Learn
Just cause you’re a kid doesn’t mean you don’t have something to show for it! In the 1970s, Malaysian lion dance associations only allowed people aged 21 and above to learn the art of the dance. But that’s all changed. These days, there are kids as young as six playing drums and cymbals during CNY performances. According to Malaysia Khuan Loke Dragon & Lion Dance Association
chief instructor Albert Fong, the youngest member of their team is as young as eight years old.
Girls Can Be Lion Dancers, Too!
If we were in ancient China, yes, lion dance troupes would consist of strong, lithe men with beautiful muscles. But this ain’t ancient China! And the rules have been relaxed, yo! It’s totally not surprising to see girls in lion dance troupes now whether they’re playing the drums and cymbals, or being a head or tail dancer... which brings us to our next point.
Not All Lion Dancers Are Chinese
According to chief instructor and deputy president Albert Fong (centre), Malaysia Khuan Loke Dragon and Lion Dance Association boasts a truly Malaysian team. (Image: Zoe Liew)
Bet you didn’t see this coming. In the past, it may have been difficult to allow individuals of other ethnicities to join the troupes because of the linguistic and cultural barriers as most instructors could only converse in Mandarin, Cantonese, and other Chinese dialects. But Khuan Loke and a few other associations have begun accepting individuals from other ethnic groups. “I speak in English and BM during classes so that everyone understands,” chief instructor Albert Fong clarifies.
We recently crashed the Malaysia Khuan Loke Dragon and Lion Dance Association's rehearsal in a basement car park somewhere in PJ. Here's a peek at the multicultural team in action:
They Make A Lot Of Money
Since lion dances are a sticking point during Chinese New Year, they’ll never go out of style and dance troupes are always in demand. “Those who have passed their beginner’s level exams novices can get paid RM30/day while advanced performers can expect up to RM200/day during CNY. During non-CNY periods, novices get paid RM30/show whereas advanced performers get paid RM100/show,” Fong adds. Advanced performers might get paid even more during acrobatic performances, which require them to dance on poles!
And this doesn’t even include the actual angpow money given by bystanders and clients. Let’s not even talk about the prize money given during competitions. Last year, the cash prize awarded during the Genting World Lion Dance Championship 2016 amounted to a whooping RM40,519.50. Even the eight finalist teams got consolation cash prizes of more than RM4,000 each. As we say in Cantonese, fatt-dat loh
But It's Not As Easy As You Think...
Though the life of a dancer does seem glamourous – travelling all over the country and the world for competitions and earning lots of money – it also takes some money to get there. Most competition organisers don’t cover airfare and other miscellaneous expenses so the associations have to absorb the costs. Competition is stiff. And there are so many new 'lion dance associations' popping up now. “All it takes nowadays is to pay a small fee and get 10 people to sign and you can register a lion dance association,” Fong says. He notes that there are many con artists who wish to make some quick moolah from doing lion dances during CNY.
Learning It Will Cost You An Arm And A Leg... Not
Most associations now offer lessons for free in order to attract students and keep this cultural art form alive. Some associations do accept a small membership fee though. If your school has a lion dance or martial arts club, you can even petition your school for a certified instructor to teach your clubmates the art and it’ll cost you nothing.
Lion Dancers Are Not Gangsters
In the 1950s and 60s, lion dances gained a violent reputation since many youngsters who joined the troupes often fought with members from other troupes and kung fu schools. And the Wong Fei Hung movies didn’t lessen the association either. “I think parents don’t allow their kids to join lion dances because of the rumours that it’s related to gangsterism,” says Fong. It’s a real shame since the lion dance is a form of art and beauty.
It's A Real Sport
Did you know that the lion dance is legally recognised as a sport in Malaysia? In 2013, the first Malaysian lion dance examination was conducted by the International Sar Ping Lion Dance Confederation. Exams are now held every six months. It’s also accepted as a competitive sport in many other countries including England, Myanmar, Scotland, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines, and the United States.
Stop Pulling The Lion's Fur
Though the lions may seem playful and happy, some viewers may get a little too excited and pull the fur. Not cool at all. “Sometimes people think if they get the fur, they can get some of the good luck from the lion. It’s okay if you want to hug them during photography sessions or take selfies, but do be gentle,” Fong explains.
About That Angpow...
If you really want to show your appreciation, giving angpows is a good way to start. The amount doesn’t matter as it’s the thought that counts. Some oranges or food wouldn’t be amiss too.