Young Lions Ep. 2: Five-time world champion Low Tong Sheng in action
LION dance performances – traditionally performed to chase away evil spirits – usually last around 20 to 30 minutes.
The lions would perform their awe-inspiring acrobatic stunts while perched on poles (called jong) up to eight feet high and give out lucky mandarin oranges before unpacking their equipment and silently disappearing.
But among many troupes, despite the passion and dedication of their current members, a new problem is growing – young people no longer relish the challenge of being lion dancers.
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“As lion dancers, we always try to pass on the legacy by inviting new friends to join lion dancing,” said lion dancer Low Tong Sheng, 23, who is part of the world-famous Kun Seng Keng troupe in Muar, Johor.
But while getting people in is easy, getting them to stay is a different matter.
“There are many who have quit. Quite a few of those brought into the troupe by their friends leave because they lose interest,” Low added.
Training can be grueling – three two-hour sessions a day is not for everyone – and only the most passionate stay.
“Those who join on their own generally have more interest,” said Low. “They are the ones who stay.”
Despite Malaysia’s status as one of the world’s best lion dancing nations, it’s getting harder for troupes to find young people with the kind of dedication it takes to make it to the top.
“It’s not easy to get someone who is good and willing to learn,” said Albert Fong, 41, instructor and deputy president of the Khuan Loke Dragon and Lion Dance Association.
“Born performers are rare, but with enough training, we can produce good dancers, as long as they are willing to put in the hours.”
Even though the lion dancers get the most limelight – and pay – many young people now prefer the “safer” roles within the troupes.
“It’s hard to get new dancers because a lot of new members are scared to jump on the jong,” said Teo Kai Xin, 25, who works full-time as the secretary of Kun Seng Keng.
“Most parents want their children to play the drums, so that’s where they start,” added Fong. “But they stop short of becoming dancers, and that’s what troupes really need.”
The average retirement age of lion dancers, especially those who perform on the jong, is 28.
It takes at least a year for a performer to rise through the ranks from instrument-player to jong-dancer. It takes several more for them to perfect the art.
Competition-level performers tend to be in their late teens to early twenties, which gives them a few good years to represent the troupe. But troupes are stuck back at square one when performers up and leave.
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“Some quit because parents worry. They think it’s a ‘black’ sport (associated with gangsterism),” said E-Xin Dragon and Lion Dance performer and instructor Kent Wong, 23.
“Finances also play a big part. Lion dancing is not a very lucrative career.”
That’s not entirely true. Those who dance on the jongs can earn up to RM10,000 over the 15-day Chinese New Year period.
The rest, however, take a much smaller cut and have to rely on angpows from the crowd to get by.
Competition winnings, which can go up to RM30,000 for the grand prize, are split 30-70, with 30% going to the associations behind the troupes to cover administrative costs, and the remainder being split among the members.
Again, jong-dancers get the biggest slice of the pie.
But only the biggest teams have a real shot at winning the competitions, and only the most famous get hefty paychecks for performing.
For those in the newer, smaller teams, a career in lion dancing is just not financially viable.
While the instructors understand why some people have to leave, it can be difficult for troupes to find replacements when someone goes.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Fong frankly. “It’s always very sad when people you’ve spent years training decide to leave because of other commitments.”
Low, a six-time world champion, is one of very few lion dancers who can afford to perform full-time. Even his current lion dance partner, also a world champion, has a full-time job laying tiles. Fong is a factory manager, and Wong is a mechanic.
According to Teo, many lion dancers take up blue-collar jobs with flexible hours, so they can focus on the intense training they go through during competition season and Chinese New Year.
Judging from the huge crowds that gather to watch the lions everywhere they go, it’s clear there is still a huge demand for lion dance, especially during the Chinese New Year season.
To meet this demand, some teams have cast their nets far afield, recruiting and training teams from countries like the Philippines, Myanmar and Cambodia.
“Our Kuala Lumpur branch recruits performers from Myanmar, especially for the Chinese New Year period,” said Teo. The troupe houses and trains the performers, but they are not competition-ready.
“This is all we can do now. There is no way to solve the manpower issue. We can only hope to keep recruiting and training,” she said.
Fong, however, plans to recruit new blood through the Sar Ping Lui Pai Lion Dance Graded Examination, a system created by the troupe through which Fong hopes to turn Malaysia into a training hub for lion dance.
The Khuan Loke troupe, six-time world champions, has already garnered disciples from as far as the United States.
“We’re willing to train them, pay for their airfare and accommodation, and lead them to the championships,” said Fong. “Locally, we’re also going to start going to schools to train students.”
The show must go on
For now, the troupes have to constantly train their dancers while keeping an eye on recruiting future talents.
Daily training sessions in the month leading up to competitions and Chinese New Year are common. At their busiest, troupes can have up to 16 performances a day.
Most performers arrange their training schedules around their work or school schedules, which means they train until midnight.
The bigger troupes, however, require greater commitment from their members.
“We train three times a day,” said Low. “We’ll keep training until every one of us is familiar with the routine.”
Onstage, the lions seem to frolic effortlessly from jong to jong, playfully interacting with the enraptured audience. In the training centre, however, it’s serious business, whether up on the jong, or on the ground playing drums.
“We take our training very seriously,” said E-Xin Dragon and Lion Dance drummer, Janson Chan, 16. “Some people can’t take criticism, so they quit. But the scolding is nothing personal, it’s all just part of learning. After training, we all have a drink as friends.” Lion dancers develop a real bond as they are constantly putting their lives, quite literally, in each others’ hands.
The dance is performed by two people, one acting as the head, and the other as the tail. In one of the most dangerous lion dance stunts, the head leaps off the jong head-first, and it’s up to the partner to hold onto him so he can hang off the side of the jong. That kind of trust only comes from countless hours of training and performing together.
But training isn’t just time-consuming – it’s physically demanding as well. Those performing as the tails have to be extremely strong as they are constantly carrying their partners, while the heads have to be more fleet-footed and agile.
On top of that, the ornate lion heads weigh around 4-7kg, which might not sound like much, until you consider that they have to hold them up for 20-30 minutes during each performance.
And on the jong’s narrow poles, there is very little margin for error. It’s a long way to the ground, so even the slightest misstep could lead to sprains and broken bones, which could sideline them for the rest of the season.
Fong said safety is one of the first things you learn as a lion dancer, but even then, accidents happen.
Low, for example, slipped off a jong during a performance, and gashed his head on the side of the pole. He required 12 stitches, but was back in training within a week, against the advice of his doctor.
“It was a week before a major competition,” he said. “I had been practising for so long before that, so when my partner asked if I wanted to continue, I said yes.”
While the future of lion dance remains uncertain, the passion among the performers of today is still burning bright.
“Even after 10 years, I’ve never once thought about quitting lion dance,” said Low.