Tag Archives: Lion Dance

A quieter goat than the horse that came before.

Depending on where you are of course, the goat may in fact be a sheep.  Or even a ram. All this talk of farmyard animals! What’s it all about? Not a reference to a line from a children’s book or a trip to the local farm. I am of course referring to Chinese New Year symbolism, with 2014 being the year of the horse and 215 being the year of the goat.  They are two animals belonging to the twelve year cycle of Sheng Xiao, attached to the Chinese lunar calendar.

Chinese New Year has just echoed around the world to the deafening sound of thousands of firecrackers, the musical score and whirling glory of the ever impressive lion and dragon dances, and a riotous blaze of New Year fire works.  I really love experiencing Chinese New Year.  It is one of my favourite things about being in South East Asia.

A friendly lion!

A friendly lion!

Having not really fully realised the complexities of the demographic make up of Brunei before we arrived, it wasn’t one of the cultural experiences I was anticipating.  But with around 20% of the population being Chinese, it is a big part of the annual calendar of events and celebrations.  Or rather, it has been until now.

Since Brunei’s implementation of Shariah Law in May 2014, there have been growing efforts by the Bruneian Government to limit or even eradicate non-muslim social and cultural events.  Christmas 2014 was the first serious example of this in practice, with shopping centres, restaurants and hotels prohibited from displaying Christmas decorations or acknowledging the Christmas period in any way. Following hot on its heals, Chinese New Year celebrations have also been severely restricted this year.

For many of us expats who have made Brunei our temporary home, the restrictions placed on Christmas were saddening, but most people were fairly understanding.  After all, although Christmas may be a big part of our cultural heritage, it isn’t and never has been part of the local or indigenous culture or faith.

More upsetting and shocking are the limitations forced on the Chinese Bruneian community, many of whom have lived here for generations.  Having seen Brunei with the eyes of someone from outside, looking in, one of the loveliest things about it was the interesting melting pot of cultures and faiths, and the peaceful way that people and communities with different beliefs lived side by side so happily.

In the past, Chinese New Year provided an opportunity for the Chinese community to celebrate, and allowed other interested local and expat observers to get a real insight into the cultural complexities, symbolism and joyous celebration involved in welcoming in the new year.

This year, restrictions placed on the Chinese community meant that they were no longer permitted to use firecrackers and fireworks, which are highly symbolic in the context of Chinese New Year.  The performance of Lion and Dragon dances was severely restricted to a handful of venues and times across the entire country, and non-Chinese observers were forbidden from participating in Chinese New Year celebrations. An altogether quieter and less conspicuous way to usher in the new year.

Last year when our little girl was still only months old we took her to a lion dance being conducted at a local business premises to ward off evil, and bring luck and good fortune for the coming year.  She loved all the music, whirling colours and dancing.  I am so sad that she hasn’t had the opportunity to go this year, and won’t again whilst we live in this country.

The lion heads keeping guard as the lion dancers watch the dragon dance in neighbouring Kota Kinabalu.

The lion heads keeping guard as the lion dancers watch the dragon dance in neighbouring Kota Kinabalu.

More than that, I am sad that a country that used to seem like such a friendly, welcoming and happily culturally diverse place now seems divided, secretive, and unhappy.

Although I’ve seen no official source or confirmation of this, I have heard rumours that this limited celebration of Chinese New Year will be the last time it is permitted in any form in Brunei, and that as from next year it will be entirely banned. A lot has changed since last Chinese New Year, but I sincerely hope that we do not see an even more radical difference this time next year.  Even just as an expat bystander, a Brunei without Chinese New Year will seem a disappointingly more anodyne, hollowed out place to be.

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Extra, extra: the lion inside.

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Touching the lion for luck – good habits start young!

Chinese New Year Lion Dances are a thing to behold when they are performed by an accomplished dance troupe.  Paying for a lion dance to be performed at your home or business is believed to bestow luck and fortune for the coming year, and normally there will be two or three lions dancing at any given dance.

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Lions on parade.

I was in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah over the Chinese New Year period earlier this year, and we were fortunate enough to catch a truly spectacular lion dance.  We could hear the rhythmic drumming and the clashing of gongs and cymbals from the streets outside our hotel, and our curiosity was piqued. We suspected it was a lion dance, but didn’t know where it was happening or how much of it would be left to watch.  So we quickly grabbed cameras, bags, baby travel bag, baby sling, and all the other clutter it seems you need for even the shortest trip out with a baby and hit the pavement to see what we could see.

In fact, what we found was a full-blown lion dance extravaganza at the tourist information centre.  There were at least a dozen lions.  Most of the time there were only three lions dancing simultaneously, but when the dance was drawing to a close and all the lions were parading together it was just fantastic to watch.

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Showing off their best moves.

This exceptional lion dance was the first thing that sprang to mind for this week’s WordPress weekly photo challenge, to share ‘a photo that has a little something extra’. In this case, extra lions!

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Under the mask….

We stood watching the members of the dance troupe emerge from their costumes after the finale of the dance, and it made me wonder what they were like. Who were the people on the inside?  Were they extrovert ‘look at me’ types; were they bursting with pride from the special honour of performing in a lion dance troupe; did they like hiding behind the costumes and putting on the character of the lion over their own outer self?

It brought to mind a great quote by the wonderful late actress, Ingrid Bergman, where she professes to be ‘the shyest human ever invented, but I had a lion inside me that wouldn’t shut up!‘.  Certainly not what you would expect of one of the greatest leading ladies of old Hollywood. A little extra insight about her personality perhaps, and something that you might never have guessed watching her immaculately poised performances in films like Casablanca, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Anastasia.

Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Or Happy Chinese New Year! There is simply no way to overlook the arrival of the Chinese New Year when you live in a country where a large proportion of the community are Chinese.  With around 15% of Brunei’s population being Chinese, Chinese New Year is a big thing here.  And by big, I mean loud!

When it comes to celebratory fireworks, the Chinese pull out all the stops.  Two hours of fireworks and firecrackers going off all around is not uncommon, as each individual family ushers in the New Year.  But, although there is a lot of noise, the actual displays are not always that spectacular to look at.  This is because, in keeping with Chinese superstition, it is the noise that is the important part.  The idea is that the noise scares away the evil spirits and bad mythical beasts.  Individual households will often have strings of firecrackers hung on their gates which, once lit, crackle deafeningly inside their self-made smoke screen like rapid gun fire for minutes at a time.  The firecrackers also spit out tiny bits of red paper as they burn, red being regarded as an auspicious colour.

Another highly symbolic, noisy tradition is the lion dance.  Chinese New Year Lion DancePerformed by a lion dance troupe, it is an energetic and complicated dance which brings prosperity and luck and banished evil spirits.  In Brunei these troupes are often based within high schools or martial arts groups, and practices take place for months in advance to perfect the moves required.  Two dancers work in partnership inside each lion, with one as the head and one at the tail.  The lion moves to the sound of accompanying drums, cymbals and gongs, which have to be carefully paced to convey the right amount of energy, keeping time with the movement of the lion.

There are Northern Lions and Southern Lions, from the respective parts of mainland China. In Brunei the Southern Lion is customary.  With a big wide head and expressive grinning face, people unfamiliar with Chinese New Year often mistakenly identify the lion as a dragon.  In fact, dragon dances are also performed at Chinese New Year, although I have never seen one in Brunei.  As with the lion dance, they are performed to bring good luck and scare away the evil spirits.  Whilst the lion is represented by two people hidden under one costume, the dragon can be of varying lengths and is a figure held over head on poles.  A dragon can be sometimes by fluttering above the heads of thirty or forty dancers, which must be a truly amazing sight.  Although considerably smaller, even the movement of the lion can be quite mesmerising.

Watching for the first time it can be hard to absorb all the symbolism, there is so much going on at once.  Often there will be more than one lion, and they will usually be different colours, as colour is used to represent age and character.  White lions are the oldest, whilst black lions are the youngest, and lions with golden yellow fur are the middle child.  The pace and style of the music and dance should shift to suit each lion, so would be at its fastest and most energised for the black lion.  There are also other colour lions, including the red lion which represents courage and the green lion for friendship.  Every lion has a mirror attached to their head as these symbolically reflect negative energy back on evil spirits and frightening them away.  Lion dances are also very active, with constant movement of the head and mouth to represent the lion’s vitality and longevity, and vigorous tail movement to symbolise the sweeping away of last years’ bad fortune.Chinese Lion

The dance is usually paid for by businesses, families or communities as a way of bestowing good luck and fortune for the coming year.  The dance conveys the lion plucking the greens – ‘cai qing’ in Chinese.  The lion is provided with auspicious vegetables and also auspicious fruit such as pomelos and oranges, which are thought to bring prosperity.  Auspicious oranges and pomelosThere will usually be a red envelope, containing money, with the fruit.  The lion dances around the property, banishing the evil spirits as he goes.  Finally he approaches the offering of greens and fruit, curious about them.  The music calms as he lies down to chew the food and contemplate.  Then suddenly the music will explode back into life as the lion jumps up and starts energetically dancing about, spitting out everything but the red envelope.  By spitting out the greens the lion is blessing the property or business with abundance for the coming year.

Seeing a lion dance is quite an amazing experience.  I love talking to Chinese friends and neighbours about the symbolism and customs behind the lion dance and other Chinese New Year customs.  There is a lot I don’t understand yet, and a lot that I just don’t get, from my own specific cultural standpoint.  So I’ll admit that it seems like an immense waste of beautiful fireworks (and money!) to set them off in the middle of the day in brilliant sunshine.  But, with Chinese New Year celebrations lasting over a week, neither am I super chuffed when they are going off for hours night after night whilst I fret about them waking my sleeping baby!  I guess the plus side is that, if she can learn to sleep through them from an early age, she’s going to be a good sleeper in years to come!  I’ll be taking her to see her first lion dance in the next few days.  I’m sure she will love it as much as I do, with all the music and activity going on around her, and the brightly coloured costumes to look at.