The men and boys behind many a lion dance performance are not just performers. Years of travelling round the island as a troupe and practicing together has made them a fraternity. And the end of the old year was a good time to cement that status.
Decades ago, a group of lion dance enthusiasts (now mostly aged between the 50s and 70s) decided to band various lion dance troupes together under the label of Lam Fong Fut Hok (南方佛鹤). Lam Fong, which means ‘southern’ in Cantonese, was a reference to not just the geographical region of their lion dance style’s roots (in today’s Guangdong province in southern China), but also the geographical region of their current practitioners in the Southeast Asian Chinese diaspora. ‘Fut Hok’ was the name given to the hybrid style of lion dance that arose in the clan association Kong Chow Wui Koon in the 1960s, a synthesis of the existing Fut-san and Hok-san styles of southern lion dance named after their respective regional heartlands. It’s this common style that bands these troupes together, and signals them as cousins even as they were formed by clan members who decided to branch away from the association over the late 20th century.
Sifu Poon (affectionately known as ‘Ah Lo Sifu’), a sullen-looking old man in his 70s and the head of the band, had sent an invitation out to members of 13 different affiliated lion dance troupes for this ‘yearly celebration’ of their unity. It was not just the grizzled older veterans and current troupe members who were welcomed – many brought their wives, children, and parents along. For years lion dancers were considered to be on the margins of Singapore society, and the meeting point might be seen as similarly marginal – a low-roofed brick compound in the Geylang area housing a small gallery and a Taoist temple named Mun San Fook Tuck Chee (万山福德祠).
When I arrived by bus at dusk, the compound was already lit by the plumes of smoke coming from two barbecue pits. Men and women from the temple’s lion dance troupe stood grilling sticks of chicken satay (Malay-style kebabs), otak-otak (spicy fish paste wrapped and grilled in banana leaves), and chicken and pork sausages. (No beef was present: some Singaporean Chinese abstain from beef because of the belief that the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy was once reincarnated as a cow.) Young boys and girls stood before the smoking coals hesitantly spreading margarine on the sticks of meat they were grilling, while older teenagers sat and laughed over the latest ‘Insta-stories’ on their mobile phones. “Help yourselves! Eat more!” the older men would shout heartily, ruffling children on the head and exhorting passers-by to try out the karaoke machine they had installed outside the temple.
However, my feet led me past the food-laden tables to a small block to the east of the temple: Sar Kong’s own lion and dragon dance gallery.
“You want to go in?” A middle-aged man with a crew cut and bronzed, wrinkled face sidled up next to me, speaking in English. Without waiting for me to reply, he gestured to another middle-aged man to unlock the door. After some musing about the code and collaboration with more men, the doors were opened.
The unnamed gallery was smaller than an apartment room. Lion dance competition trophies and commemorative plaques sat modestly behind glass panels surrounded by information boards in English and Mandarin. I asked my host for his surname. “Just call me Uncle,” he retorted. “You ask everyone; they call me ‘Uncle’ or ‘Brother’.” Moving clockwise around the area, he smiled broadly at the exhibits. “This is all history, you must learn,” he mused wistfully.
The temple was the only trace left of a small village, named Sar Kong or ‘sand ridge’, surrounded by fish and prawn farms as well as brick kilns – now, it is dwarved by apartment blocks in the nearby HDB estate. In the 1920s, a lion dance troupe was founded, ostensibly for the purpose of giving the youth of the area meaningful physical recreation. Given the more unstable social climate of the time, popular perception of lion dancers as violent gangsters, and the ritual needs of the temple, it seems more likely that the troupe would have been formed possibly as a means of side-income for the temple management and add luck to certain Taoist ceremonies. Incredibly, the temple had its own fire-fighting troupe in the 1950s. Today, only a hachet and an iron helmet testify to its existence.
Eventually we stopped at the frame of a dragon dance head attached to a long metal pole. Above it seethed another dragon made of straw, glaring at the gallery doors with its fluorescent eyes. “Try to lift it,” the man called ‘Uncle’ challenged me. Bracing my weight against the pole’s wooden stand, I tried to lift it, but it wouldn’t budge an inch. “Very heavy, right?” he smirked. “Imagine, we had to carry this during the Chingay Parade years ago. It rained, so up to our ankles got water. Then when the head is wet, it gets even heavier.”
The dragons were part of a Hakka tradition of dragon dance that is still being continued today in Southeast Asia and parts of Hong Kong. “One time, we had a fire dragon,” the ‘Uncle’ told me proudly. It was a major accomplishment for this little temple troupe. Unlike modern-day props used in dragon dance, the ‘fire dragon’ consisted of numerous incense sticks inserted into the notches within the rattan frame that were to be set alight. The risk of parading flaming bundles of wood around the island meant that restrictions on ‘fire dragons’ in Singapore were only lifted in the 2010s. The first on the island took centre-stage during the temple’s 150th anniversary celebrations two years ago, before it was burnt in the belief that doing so would spread blessings to the surrounding area.
Looking around the tiny room, it occurred to me that this was the troupe’s way of trying to preserve and pass down a history that might be at threat from the relentless tides of redevelopment. Lam Fong Fut Hok would last longer, but it was uncertain for how long – the troupe has received less invitations to perform over the years, and there are only a couple of old masters who know how to make the lion and dragon props essential to their craft.
But for now, the ‘old-timers’ wouldn’t live that thought down. The night was a time to celebrate: to look back on the achievements of the past year and the camaraderie they had managed to sustain. “Lam Fong Fut Hok!” one bald man shouted, pumping his fist into the air, to raucous cheers. Their roars resounded into the night. And hopefully this is a cheer that will be repeated next year, and into the years to come.