Awakening the Dragon

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Mr Leong Kwok Khuen ‘blessing’ the dragon dancers with a spring of pomelo leaves dipped in water.

‘Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus,’ says the Hogwarts school motto. In Chinese tradition, however, waking the dragon is an indispensable part of its creation.

For months, an old man from the Kong Chow Wui Koon had sat in his Sengkang apartment, bending numerous rattan strips into semi-circles. These he wove with cable ties into the characteristic shape of a dragon’s head, before dipping strips of thick pale cloth in a mixture of glue and water and pasting them square by square over the nascent frame. A second layer of laser paper would be pasted over and intricately painted with swirls and bursts of auspicious colour – red and gold, accented in areas with a deep purple. The dragon’s mane and eyebrows were etched with white synthetic fur, its eyes studded with mini light-bulbs. Its skeleton, composed of twelve sections of rattan rings, began to take shape under a bright orange nylon skin.

But it was not yet truly alive. The head sat dormant in the clan association’s third-floor lion dance gallery, its eyes covered with sheets of red paper. Before it could twist through the skies in the dragon dance performances it was made of, it had to go through a kaiguang – ‘opening light’ – ceremony. Dragons and lions are semi-divine creatures in Chinese mythology, and before a lion or dragon costume could be used it had to first undergo the ritual to symbolically cleanse it of filth and beckon the ‘spirit’ of the creature into the apparatus. A lion or dragon head that was used in a dance without being ‘awakened’ is considered to be ineffective at best or disastrous at worst.

Just before the whole clan set out to the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations headquarters for their 177th anniversary celebrations, everyone gathered at the rooftop pavillion to witness the ceremony. Twelve men and women crouched on the floor, each gripping onto a metal pole which supported a different section of the dragon’s body. Video crew roved the area, waiting to film the proceedings and compile the footage for a future anniversary performance. I squeezed my way past the onlookers and into a corner of the platform, waiting.

A middle-aged man stood next to me, the words for the ritual written in Cantonese on his mobile phone. Another with a suona – the Chinese equivalent to the trumpet – stood with the bronze instrument poised to his lips. As each sentence of the ritual rang out into the silence, the warbling notes of the suona began to play a soft accompaniment. Mr Leong Kwok Khuen, the head of the clan’s lion and dragon dance troupe, threaded through the dancers, spraying them with drops of water from a sprig of pomelo leaves as a form of spiritual cleansing. Then an older man in a white blazer – a member of the clan’s executive committee – was led forward, horsehair brush in hand.

While most kaiguang rituals in the past would have been graced by Taoist priests or Buddhist nuns, the most eminent person in the community was chosen for the secular setting of this particular ritual. The exact contents of each line of incantations were largely lost on me due to my limited knowledge of Chinese dialects, but the message of each line was clear – each of the dragon’s physical attributes would be verbally blessed in hopes that the dragon costume would gain vitality and power. Mr Leong stepped next to the dignitary, small red cup in hand. Dipping the end of the brush in the cinnabar contained within, the old man used the brush tip to dot a different part of the dragon with each recited line.

“Dragon’s eyes, shining radiance!” The brush went over nose, eyes, teeth, tongue, ears, horns, mane, claws, body and tail. The dignitary had to be guided to the correct portion with murmuring, anxious voices by the old sifus (masters) supervising the ceremony. Consecrating a new dragon head was a rare occassion. “It’s not every year we get a dragon dance for the anniversary celebration,” explained one of the young female lion dancers. “Last time we had a dragon that could shoot water through a hose in its mouth. This is the first time we’re having a fire dragon.” National fire safety regulations, a lack of skilled Singaporean craftsmen and financial constraints meant that this was the first year a ‘fire dragon’, which is lit using candles contained within each section of its body, was allowed to be used in performance.

Suddenly, the strains of the suona stopped. The dragon’s coils began to twitch. With a thrum of the gong and the metallic clash of cymbals, the head rose and began to look around, bobbing to the rhythm. Amid the cacophony of percussions, it began to chase its pearl, the source of its life essence in folklore, represented by an orange paper ball carried by a fifteenth dancer. Snaking over to the Taoist altar, it bobbed its head back and forth in a show of respect. The dance continued for a while longer, the dancers twirling the metal poles in strong, arcing movements. Then it was over. The dragon was packed into the lorry used by the troupe for their public performances – not dormant now, but alive and waiting.

It is these aspects of superstition and ritual that have given lion and dragon dancing a bad name in the past. However, it is more often the case that many of the younger people participating in this activity adhere to these rituals and customs out of respect for the beliefs of the older generation without actually believing in their power. If anything, I feel it provides a glimpse into the depth of respect the practitioners of old had for their art, and the metaphysical significance of a piece of culture that might one day be lost to the tide of history.

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One of the clan’s senior members tying a celebratory red rosette onto the dragon’s horn.

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As the dragon’s eyes are ‘awakened’, the paper is removed from them while the dignitary goes on to use a cinnabar-tinted brush to dot the dragon’s horns.

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Members of the Kong Chow Wui Koon posing with the maker of the dragon head (first from left).

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