On a Friday night in Hong Kong, it’s showtime for Kwok’s Kung Fu and Dragon Lion Dance Team. All you can hear is the pulsating beat of drums and clashing symbols, like something majestic is about to occur.
Suddenly, several dancers leap onto the stage dressed in elaborate red and gold lion costumes. With one dancer operating the head of the lion and another controlling the tail, they have to synchronise their moves seamlessly. To make the lion stand on its hind legs, one dancer climbs up on the shoulders of another, before pulling off an impressive display of stunts and acrobatics with remarkable agility and coordination.
Master Andy Kwok has led Kwok’s Kung Fu and Dragon Lion Dance for more than 20 years. Both of Kwok’s parents were lion dance masters themselves and, in turn, helped to nurture his own passion for the art form. “I believe I began to learn lion dancing in my mother’s womb,” he says.
Kwok’s father taught him kung fu and lion dance. He says martial arts superstars like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan inspired him to want to learn. “When I was young, I would watch movies [starring] Jackie Chan, and I would try to copy his stunts in the playground and always end up getting hurt.”
At the age of 23, and after trying his hand as a police officer and as a school teacher, Kwok decided that his heart was in lion dancing. Since then, he hasn’t looked back. His 140-person-strong lion dance troupe typically performs 40-50 shows over the Chinese New Year period.
In addition to the performances, his team takes part in lion-dancing competitions year-round both in China and abroad. Lion-dancing competitions include many daredevil stunts, including jumping across high pillars with tiny platforms to land on – and while the professionals like Kwok and his team make it look effortless, it takes years of training to perfect and can involve regular injuries. “Both of my legs are full of scars from injuries that I have sustained over the years,” says Kwok. “Because I was one of the first to develop the high-pillar-jumping lion dance in Hong Kong, I had no real experience, and it was just trial and error.”
Although lion dancing is now a celebrated performance art in Hong Kong, it wasn’t always the case. Since kung fu is the basis for the performance art, good dancers were often recruited to join the Triads, a gang of organised criminals. In the 1950s and ’60s, rival troupes would conceal knives within the folds of their costumes, and performances would often get bloody. For a few years in the 1970s and ’80s, the Hong Kong government banned lion dancing altogether.
“It used to get competitive and violent at times, but it is so much better now,” says Kwok. “Back in the ’60s and ’70s when there was more Triad activity, the education level was poorer, and there were regular clashes. If you are found fighting in public today, you will simply be arrested.”
Although Kwok can’t say with certainty that there are no longer any Triads performing the dance, he maintains that its image has come a long way from what it was back then. “Now there is no trouble. That’s why we are allowed to teach the lion dance in all the schools. We do other things like charity and volunteer work, and our image is a lot more positive.”
These days, a new set of challenges presents itself for Kwok: finding new ways to recruit young people. “This generation in Hong Kong doesn’t seem to be so keen on sports; they are too involved with all their studies,” he says. “Now they are always on their phones or computers.”
Undeterred, Kwok regularly teaches introductory lion dance classes at local schools and hopes that more will be interested in joining and helping to preserve this important traditional art form. He says that posting photos and videos of performances on social media platforms helps to spark interest among younger audiences. “I still believe that we can grab the interest of young people and keep this tradition alive in Hong Kong.”
One of Kwok’s long-time team members is 33-year-old Steven Cheng, who has been practising the lion dance since he was 10. Like Kwok, Cheng found his way into lion dancing after first learning kung fu. Now he performs and teaches lion dance full-time. “I train five days a week. Every day I have different students to teach and I help them. I plan to keep training until I can no longer physically do it.”
Cheng hopes to encourage more young people to develop an interest in the art form. “With the training, I am able to perform moves that I never thought I could master,” he says. “For myself and the students I teach, I would say the confidence boost that performing gives you is another important benefit.”
Besides advertising the obvious physical benefits of lion dancing, Cheng believes that modern innovations can capture the interest of the younger generation. “Master Kwok has an open mind and likes to try new things, and that’s why he will invest in new performance elements,” says Cheng. “Because of our modern innovations, I think the lion dance tradition will last for a long time. It’s part of our local entertainment.”
Kwok believes that audiences today want to be surprised and see more unexpected things on stage, which is why his team created the programmed LED lion dance, a new performance element that is unique to Hong Kong. The lights are pre-programmed to synchronise with the music. Hip-hop and street-dance choreography are used alongside electronic dance music in place of the traditional drums.
“We believe that if you don’t continue to innovate, then you will fade away,” says Kwok. “I sincerely hope that lion dance in Hong Kong will last for a long time. I will continue to work hard for this.”