(cr: Hong Kong Tourism Board Website)
On Thursday night, people packed Tai Hang in Hong Kong, waiting for the long-lost Fire Dragon Dance. The century-old tradition, part of the national intangible cultural heritage, is back after 3 years’ pause.
Due to pandemic, Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance has paused for three years in between. This year is the first year the show starts all over again. Like good old days, the theme of this year will be “to rectify the plague”, looking forward for “peace” and “harmony” in a close-knit community.
Around 8 p.m., the handsome and youthful “Little Fire Dragon” was the first to appear. A few moments later, the actual dragon dance gig began with a series of heavy drum beats. Over 300 performers carried Fire Dragon, hop, jump, twirl, somersault, working together.
The smoke was swirling around, and suddenly, the “pearl” of the dragon leaps out of smoky fog! Immediately after, the giant dragon’s head danced along with the dragon’s pearl, and its sinuous body circled the entire street.
The fireworks on the dragon’s head, body and back were like stars falling from the sky to the ground, flashing brilliantly.
“It’s a matter of discipline, because a flaw by one person will be weighed on every one of us,” said the head coach of Dragon Dance Team. “But the community spirit will keep us on high spirit.” “We feel a strong tie with the community, people around.”
Tai Hang is a small community close to Causeway Bay in the Hong Kong Island.
Legend has it that, there was a python guzzling much of the livestock across the Tai Hang village right before the Mid-Autumn Festival. The python was finally killed by the villagers. However, a plague then followed, taking with it many lives. The villagers believed the plague was a revenge from the python, which was actually the son of the Dragon King.
A village elder claimed that Guanyin revealed to him in a dream that there was a way to end the plague by performing a fire dragon dance and letting off firecrackers around the Tai Hang village. As a remedy to which, villagers did so and miraculously the plague disappeared. Hence, they kept performing Fire Dragon Dance every year afterwards.
The length of dragon measured about 70m, which is as long as five and a half double-decker buses! The entire fire dragon consists of its head, its tail and a 67-metre body of 31 sections, which is made by rattan frames, ropes and pearl straws. The major skeleton of the dragon head and dragon tail is made of rattan branches, whereas the dragon body is a rope of 2cm think. The rope is tightened to bamboo sticks with iron wires to compose a surface for pearl straws to cover on.
The eyes of the fire dragon are made by normal battery-type torches, while the dragon saw-shaped teeth are made by iron plates. The dragon tongue is a steel plate painted with red color and the 70cm length dragon beards are made by aerial roots of banyan trees. The dragon head weighs over 45kg and requires 8 to 10 performers to rotate alternatively to move it around.
The fire is lit up by 12,000 burning incenses. Whenever the fire dragon starts the dance, with strength and vigor, the air must fill with heavy scent of coarse weed, and burnt incenses.
Dragon, according to traditional Chinese culture, is a phenomenon from the sky, therefore, the fire lit up on its trunk can’t possibly extinguish, just like the dragon won’t cease to dance. That’s why, the fire dragon dance is an exhausting exercise, high test of energy and discipline from the artisans who maneuver the dragon on fire.
The entire fire dragon needs a team of about 300 people to weave its way through the streets in Tai Hang and it performs various stunts during the parade, including “Dragon Ball Playing”, “Fire Dragon Crosses The Bridge”, “Fire Dragon Dances around Two Poles”, “Fire Dragon-Twining Makes Pyramids”, “Fire Dragon Circles with Colorful Lights”.
According to the traditions, incense sticks burnt on the fire dragons were distributed to the spectators as a symbol of blessing and good luck.
Time and time again, things keep changing. New development in technology brings to us new improvements.
Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance is one such evident that testifies to change brought upon by time. Today’s fire dragon, though raw grass is still one of the materials, has added digital elements. Unlike the old days, when eyes of fire dragon were made with battery-lit torches; today, some dragons’ eyes are made with “LED”, so the fire dragons will look more like “coming alive” and fierce when dance to the beat.
Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance was included into National Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) in the year 2011. Considering the fire dragon dance show only has the length of 3 nights every year, and that it has carried so much historical and cultural meaning, HKSAR government doesn’t wish to take this slightly, and, therefore, made the decision to convert an old building (from late Qing) into Tai Hang Fire Dragon Centre, which opened in 2022.
The idea is to help preserve the long lineage of fire dragon dance show, more than 140 years as of now.
To each and every artisan, the run of fire dragon dance isn’t just an exercise to “keep fit”; to the Tai Hang community, this isn’t something easily finishes off with a round of applause; to everyone in Hong Kong city, fire dragon dance speaks togetherness, and healthy community.