Lion heads in Georgetown, Penang. Photo: Ling Low.
Lion heads in Georgetown, Penang. Photo: Ling Low.

Lion Dance performances are a hugely significant part of Chinese New Year celebrations in countries all around Asia. Here in Malaysia, the tradition is taken very seriously. In last year’s World Lion Dance Championships, Malaysian teams from Johor and Kedah walked away with the first prize and second prize respectively.

We went behind the scenes with Sheng Wai Dragon & Lion Dance Malaysia to take a closer look at the training, preparations, and discipline involved in putting together a professional Lion Dance team.

“Lion Dance is an important part of Malaysian culture, it is something we are all familiar with,” says 28 year old Eugene Ng, who is the founder of Sheng Wai Dragon & Lion Dance. A Kepong local, Eugene may be one of the youngest lion dance troupe leaders in KL today.

Eugene is lion dancer himself and has been performing under the lion head for more than a decade. Eugene first started out with Loong Sing Dragon and Lion Dance in Brickfields. before he founded Sheng Wai in 2009 because he wanted to train closer to home. He built up the team over time. It is now under the International Kun Seng Keng Federation.

The troupe shares its training space with a small temple. The team’s earnings have been put back into progressively developing the space, ongoing maintenance and obtaining better quality equipment. Starting with seven members, the group has grown over the years and now consists of over 35 boys and girls, with ages ranging from six to 23 years old.

At six years old, Lim Cheng Zhao is the youngest member of the Sheng Wai team and is currently learning the routine for the drum. Cheng Zhao’s father was present at the training session, offering him additional coaching and guidance to keep him motivated and focused during his practice.

“Everyone gets a chance to learn all the different parts of the lion dance performance,” Eugene tells me. Team members are trained in each and every aspect of the lion dance act from the instrument playing, to playing the role of the head and tail of the lion.

shengwai lion dance
A training night in Kepong. Photo: Gabriel Chua.

Of the different aspects involved in lion dancing, the one feature that is both the hardest and most visually stunning is the acrobatic routine in the lion dance performances. At Sheng Wai, although everyone is taught all facets of the discipline, there are only a select few who can handle the acrobatics well.

These members have to practice safety above all else. However, accidents do occur during training. “Usually [they hurt] their hands and feet, but we usually get back up and finish the performance,” says Eugene. “A lot of people have a strong interest that is hard to stop, and they always want to come back and continue training as soon as possible.”

Of course, their busiest time of the year for the team is Chinese New Year. During Chinese New Year, the cost of a performance starts at RM800. For the rest of the year prices start from RM1288. The team has also been asked to perform for various television adverts.

Sheng Wai Lion Dance JPM (3)
Sheng Wai Lion Dance team in 2013.

The lion dance and the loud percussion that accompanies it arises from Chinese folklore. Legend has it that the lion heads were part of the scare tactics used to ward off the evil Nian monster which used to appear during the year end and terrorize people. The evil creature feared loud noises, the colour red, and bright lights, so villagers used these tactics to scare it away.

The colours of the lion heads later on progressed to being representative of the rank of the official in court or military that the lion-head belonged to, with red in particular being reserved for generals. However, some also say that the different colours can represent a lion’s character: red for courage, golden for liveliness and green for friendship.

Sheng Wai sources its lion heads from both China as well as locally in Malaysia. The Malaysian ones are almost twice the cost of the Chinese ones, but Eugene says they are of much better quality and have a much nicer appearance as well.

 

“A lot of people from Indonesia, Thailand, India and Australia come to Malaysia to learn lion dancing.”

 

The lion costumes used in Malaysia are primarily those of the Southern Lion, which originated from Guangdong province. The Northern Lion appears less frequently during lion dance performances in Malaysia, but can sometimes also be seen. Unlike the Southern Lion, the Northern Lion has straight, shaggy hair.

Eugene feels it is important for his team to learn the art of lion dancing as it plays a substantial role in not just Chinese, but Malaysian culture. “Malaysia is well known internationally for lion dancing, and there are a lot of people from Indonesia, Thailand, India and Australia that come to Malaysia to learn lion dancing.”

Kun Seng Keng Lion Dance training in Brickfields.
Kun Seng Keng Lion Dance training.

Sheng Wai’s team trains three to four times a week throughout the year in preparation for competitions as well as for supplementary performances, and also to build up good team dynamics. Training sessions are held during the night time so as to not interfere with team members’ work and school schedules.

Outside of the Chinese New Year frenzy, and apart from the ongoing lion dance training, the team at Sheng Wai also take part in training camps with other affiliated lion dance troupes.

“I think the most important thing is team building,” says Eugene. “If the team members don’t get along and don’t know how to work together, it will be hard for them to perform well together.”

CORRECTION: The article originally stated that Eugene started with Kun Seng Keng in Brickfields. This was an error and has been corrected to Loong Sing Dragon and Lion Dance in Brickfields. (27/02/2015).

Find out more about Sheng Wai Dragon & Lion Dance.


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