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5 Things You May Not Know About Lion Dancing

27 Apr 2017

By Paul Kay

Lion dancing has a long and storied history in Hong Kong, a heritage that local choreographer Daniel Yeung taps into and reinterprets with the contemporary dance and multimedia work ContempoLion. To whet your appetite for this performance specially commissioned by Swire Properties, here are five things that are as equally fascinating as the groundbreaking performance itself.

There’s more than one type of lion

While they share the same basic characteristics, lion dances have developed differently depending on where they come from. In China, there are two main types: Northern and Southern. Believed to have been brought to the country by the Persians, the Northern version features semi-realistic, shaggy-haired lion costumes, while the Southern interpretation – which originated in Guangdong and is the type most commonly seen around the world – is more fantastical in appearance, often with oversized costumes and bright, bold colours. The Southern version can further be divided into the Fut San and Hok San disciplines; the former is based mainly on kung fu moves, while the latter is more playful and expressive. There are several other minor styles and regional variations, too, while Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan, Korea and Tibet also have their own varieties of lion dances.

The costumes are rich in meaning

All those snazzy decorations and bright colours aren’t just for decoration – almost every part of the typical lion costume has its own special significance. For the Southern version, the mirror between the lion’s eyes is meant to scare away evil spirits and the horn in the centre of its forehead is for fighting evil; as such, it’s considered bad luck for spectators to touch either of these adornments. The red ribbon commonly tied around the lion’s horn, meanwhile, denotes that it has been blessed and awakened to pay respect to the gods, while even the colour of the costume has meaning, offering clues as to the age and the character of the lion.

Dances weren’t always friendly…

Lion dances acquired a somewhat unsavoury reputation in Hong Kong in the 1950s and 60s when rival troupes associated with martial arts groups and triads would battle each other to prove their supremacy. Some participants even concealed daggers amid their costumes to slash their opponents mid-competition, and lion dancing was banned for a time by the government. Although the ban was ultimately lifted, it remains illegal to perform a lion dance in the city without a permit from the police.

Hong Kong lions are record breakers

The Guinness World Record for simultaneous two-person lion dances was set at the annual Hong Kong Dragon and Lion Dance Festival on 1 January 2011, when a total of 1,111 pairs strutted their stuff in the streets of Tsim Sha Tsui. The record for the largest single-dancer display was set in September of the same year, when 3,971 children performed in Changhua, Taiwan.

It’s a competitive sport

As well as being an auspicious blessing and a festive spectacle, lion dancing has grown in popularity as a competitive sport over the past two decades. First held in 1994, the World Lion Dance Championship is the premier competition for troupes looking to test their mettle against the best in the world. The 2016 edition, which took place in Malaysia’s Genting Highlands, attracted 39 teams from 15 countries –including Hong Kong, Indonesia, Vietnam, the US, France, Australia and Chile – with the host country’s defending champions Kun Seng Keng Lion and Dragon Dance Association once again taking home the top prize. The next championships take place in Malaysia in December.

Tickets have now SOLD OUT for ContempoLion at the new ArtisTree from 9-10 June.
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