Roaring interest in lion dance

More troupes on the scene as members try to dispel the tattooed gangster stereotype

Some lion dance troupe members of the Singapore Teng Ghee Athletic Association. Training for such troupes now incorporates technology, and the groups market themselves through social media. They also help each other out with manpower.
Some lion dance troupe members of the Singapore Teng Ghee Athletic Association. Training for such troupes now incorporates technology, and the groups market themselves through social media. They also help each other out with manpower.ST PHOTO: FABIAN KOH

In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight. So goes the words of the song, The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

But on the streets of Singapore, the leonine creature is wide awake, day and night, heralded by the clang of cymbals and the thud of drums.

All-year round - at shop openings, grassroots activities and temple events - lion dances are often de rigueur. In outwardly modern Singapore, the tradition of hiring such troupes to "bring luck" has continued to hold strong.

This year, the number of lion dance clubs registered stands at 323, an increase from 311 last year and 299 in 2014, said Mr Jeffrey Tan, secretary-general of the Singapore Wushu Dragon and Lion Dance Federation.

With an average of about 30 members per troupe, this means there are nearly 10,000 people actively involved in lion dance in Singapore.

Many of them are young people, said Mr Tan, due to outreach efforts such as national competitions which have raised interest. For instance, the finals of the annual lion dance championships, held in Orchard Road in September, drew some 4,000 spectators daily.

Once an activity associated with gangsters, it now even attracts university graduates as members, due to efforts to change its image.

Mr Gabriel Ng, 23, an operations executive in the ferry industry, is a lion dance instructor at Singapore Teng Ghee Athletic Association. He said: "We don't smoke on the job, and we tell our members not to dye their hair with fanciful colours.

"We also make sure there are no obvious tattoos, because these were the kind of things that people stereotyped lion dance with in the past."

Mr Tan said there has also been an improvement in the management of clubs, with the young and the educated taking the reins.

"Gone too are the traditional methods of lion dance training, with new interesting training methodology introduced to attract youngsters instead."

Training now incorporates technology, and troupes market themselves through social media.

Mr Michael Ho, 37, who does regional sales in lighting manufacturing and is the treasurer of PHB Cultural Association, said the troupe's training syllabus includes videos which the participants filmed and edited themselves. The videos are then posted on the troupe's private Facebook group for members to view.

The lion dance circle in Singapore is close-knit and organised, according to dancers The Sunday Times spoke to, with strong networks between troupes.

Troupes also sometimes help each other out in terms of manpower because some participants may be busy with school or work, said Mr Eric Toh, 30, joint head of Ding Sheng Lion and Dragon Dance Troupe and an interior designer.

"We have partnerships with about five other troupes, and we help each other out if there's a lack of manpower," he said.

Each lion dance troupe performs about three times a month. These include performances at a shop's grand opening, weddings and temple events.

Members come from as young as 10 to those in their 50s. Their tasks include playing musical instruments such as cymbals and drums, and dancing in the lion costume.

The troupes said it is most hectic during Chinese New Year, with daily performances during the 15-day celebrations. That is also when the troupes raise the bulk of their funds.

"We are fully dependent on the CNY period to cover our main costs such as rental and bills, which are about $20,000 to $23,000 a year," said Mr Ho.

"The remaining $10,000 to $15,000 go into the troupe fund, for new equipment and overseas competitions expenses."

Performers are given token sums of about $20 to $30 each for a day's work. During Chinese New Year, it rises to about $50 to $80 per day, and can even hit $100, depending on the number of performances.

Despite attempts to enhance the sport's image, its less savoury associations - such as links with triads - linger. There is some cause for such perceptions, acknowledge those interviewed.

Mr Ho, for instance, said he has members "with tattoos everywhere". "So we try to ask them to put on arm sleeves during performances. On our part, we try to discipline our members. "

Added Mr Marcus Toh, 36, joint head of Ding Sheng Lion and Dragon Dance Troupe, who is self-employed: "We do have people labelling us as 'ah bengs'. But we are purely lion dancers, and have absolutely nothing to do with secret societies.

"We have nothing to fear if we don't do anything illegal."

Mr Ho said it is just something they "cannot get away from".

"There is no way to change the stereotype, unless we change the mentality of people," he said. "But we can't change the world, so we change ourselves."

Another challenge is the difficulty of finding space to train because of the noise from the musical instruments and potential damage to flooring, such as their equipment scratching the floor.

Mr Kevin Ng, 37, a general manager in the shipping industry and founder and head coach of Singapore Teng Ghee Athletic Association, said: "Maybe back in our fathers' time in the 1980s and 1990s, the stereotype was true. But the younger generation is trying to gain back respect for the art."

But "over the years, lion dance is becoming more professional, and we demand higher standards of our management and our performances", he added.

This is clear from the training regimes at the various troupes.

Members of Ding Sheng Lion and Dragon Dance Troupe first start by learning the cymbals before moving on to other musical instruments. They then have to work on their fitness, before progressing to the movements for the lion, a step which involves teamwork and coordination.

"It's a step-by-step process, and they must pass each level," said Mr Toh.

At PHB Cultural Association, new members get to try out different things to see what they are good at.

"We split training time between musical instruments and the movement and coordination aspect," said Mr Ho.

Mr Ng said his father, a lion dance coach himself, introduced him to the sport by taking him to training sessions. "I was attracted by the movements and the drums. It was very energetic, and I fell into it ."

Added Mr Ho: "We need to pass down such cultural practices to the younger generation. We do not want it to die off."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 20, 2016, with the headline 'Roaring interest in lion dance'. Subscribe