The Dance of the Lion

Last Friday I was at Midvalley Megamall in my hometown of Petaling Jaya, on the verge of the world’s worst migraine. The rush of finishing up work in Tokyo before an extended holiday, having almost zero sleep on the flight back to Malaysia and general dehydration may have aided and abetted the situation. There was my mom, scrambling for fast acting painkillers and bottled water, me behaving rather skittishly but not quite wanting to leave the premises and my boyfriend, looking worried. It’s the eve of Chinese New Year and we were braving the crowd of last minute shoppers as fellow last minute shoppers, but here we stood in the centre of the mall alongside babies, school-aged children, parents and the elderly, waiting for the 12 o’clock lion dance to begin.  

The lion dance or ‘wushi’ (舞狮) originates from Chinese culture, and features performers dressed in costume, mimicking a lion’s movements to the beat of drums, cymbals and gongs. One particular legend cites the origins of this dance as a successful attempt by villages to scare away a monster called ‘Nian’ (年兽) who was frightened by loud noises, bright lights and the colour red. In Malaysia and most of South East Asia, the Southern Lion is the predominant-style, and is very recognisable by its papier-machie/bamboo frame, fluffy and white fur, adorned horn and blinking animated eyes. It is most performed during Chinese New Year as well as celebratory occasions like business opening ceremonies or wedding parties.

There are a lot of reasons to be unexcited about a fairly pedestrian event (everywhere, every year also got lion dance wan), contained artificially inside a shopping mall with every human being with enough dexterity in their fingers, holding up some kind of smart device to film. But all of that changes the moment you hear the drummer crack his sticks together, signalling the lions coming to life. The story the lions tell and the acrobatics they use to convey it vary, but often feature ‘cai qing’ (採青), which can be the plucking, peeling and presentation of various fruits and vegetables especially green lettuce, stunts, lifts and acrobatics on top of raised platforms and incredibly lifelike and characterful animal mannerisms. The sheer strength, stamina, and creativity required is something I still can’t quite fathom, despite it being my nth time seeing one.

This trip was marking the end of a three-year streak of not returning home for the most significant holiday to my heritage, something I am absolutely not proud of. An old friend of mine from my high school days in Malaysia once told me that her favourite holiday of the year is Chinese New Year. I remember being doubly surprised, at her preference and also upon realising that deep down, I also agreed. Growing up in metropolitan Petaling Jaya, we consumed a lot of western media and I recall a lot of my childhood being spent admiring the festive celebrations of other cultures. The novelty of having chocolates shaped like eggs, hanging stockings over the fireplace, combing our padang for four-leaf clovers and a hopeful pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, was something we coveted. But in a very expected, grass is always greener scenario, the longer I’ve lived abroad, the more I’ve grown to love and long for our Malaysian-Chinese traditions.

Lion dancing, our other practices and our languages are all we have left of our ancestors who migrated from China in search of opportunity. Amongst my generation within family and friends, I can confirm our ability to speak dialects is waning. Each visit back to Malaysia will always include a visit to the temple my mom prays at, and no matter how many times I’ve completed the ritual, I still turn to my mom for advice. And at a very basic (but important) level, I worry that I’ll never be able to order food as proficiently as my parents at a ‘dai chao’ or Chinese seafood restaurant, a true art that involves building a relationship with the “captain” and almost no physical menu required. 

But while there’s work to be done for me at least, in maintaining aspects of my culture, a beautiful thing I’ve noticed is how much our culture is being shared and explored by others. The lion dance troupe we saw that day was a multi-cultural one, just like the crowd that couldn’t keep their eyes off. In Australia, the Muay Thai and kickboxing gym I went to was also home to a multi-award winning lion dance troupe that too featured members from a variety of backgrounds. Seeing its popularity within Australia plus a wider industry that was still prevailing against the age of technology gave me hope. And even seeing the props lying around in the gym would make me feel closer to home than the actual eight hour travel time by plane.

Today is known as Chap Goh Mei in Hokkein, one of the dialects that my family speaks. It’s the last day of Chinese New Year and is usually celebrated with as much fanfare as the first day, through a large family gathering. Unfortunately, what should have been an auspicious ushering in of the Year of the Rat throughout all parts of the globe that celebrates Chinese New Year, has tapered down and fizzled out, due to the prevalence of the coronavirus. There’s enough vitriol, fake news, fear-mongering and broadcasting of some terrible moments in human kind that I don’t need to cover it here. The lion dance is an emblem of Chinese New Year, it symbolises power and wisdom, health, longevity and good luck. Each performance unites us, young or old, Chinese or otherwise and celebrates the very best of humanity. If we remind ourselves of these values and demonstrate empathy and camaraderie, then just like the lion did to Nian all those years ago, we too will be able to chase away the evil.

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