Lion dancers are fixtures of Chinese New Year celebrations, the noise and energy ushering in luck across Hong Kong. The ritual is so prevalent around this time of year (late January or early February, depending on the lunar calendar), you’d think lion dancing was a large industry. But Jerry Keung, head coach of Keung’s Dragon & Lion Dance Team, tells us he estimates there are ‘only about 10 truly professional troupes in Hong Kong’.
Keung started to learn his trade from his father at age three. He’s a master now, having been in the business for over 30 years, but he approaches the trade with a modern mindset. ‘Old-fashioned masters were very protective of their skills, and not even their apprentices got to learn the whole suite,’ he says. ‘It’s different today; we share what we know with troupes around the world, either in person or through the internet. Even this interview would not have happened in the past. This kind of change is great for the local scene.’
Cheung Hon-fung, founder of Cheung’s Dragon & Lion Dance, has also seen the art form progress during his decade working with lion dancers. ‘I began with very traditional choreography, but I soon realised that lion dance could go much further,’ he says. ‘This motivated me to found my own troupe. In the past, your artistic aspirations were suppressed by conventions: you couldn’t have a lion head that was too colourful, for example, nor could you perform on wooden stakes.’
Traditional lion dance has stiff movements while the newer style is more acrobatic – and more common in Hong Kong. ‘I think lion dance is the Chinese equivalent of X Games, taking intense physical discipline to perfect,’ says Keung. ‘It is important to have a full team, so we have to constantly look to find the right candidates to fill the places. Luckily we can now work together with other troupes to spread interest in this activity. Through school programmes and international competitions, I am sure lion dancing will thrive in Hong Kong.’
This article was originally published in February 2017 and updated in November 2019