High-pole lions to soar with festive drummers
By YIP YOKE TENG
THE hot and dry air heralds the annual arrival of lions over the next few weeks to greet everyone Happy Chinese New Year. This year, the lions have some great companions in tow to bring double happiness to the world.
Fearlessly prancing from pole to pole to mark new beginnings, the lions are set to stir the spirit even higher with the thunderous beats of the 24 Festive Drums.
Steeped in rich culture, the high pole lion dance and drum ensemble are actually made in Malaysia.
They are undoubtedly the pride of the nation, with their popularity as widespread as the name of the country.
For the first time in history, the two Malaysian legacies will come together to deliver a dazzling show while marking a breakthrough in cultural development.
The performance involving 80 members is presented by 29-time world champion lion dance troupe Kun Seng Keng and the acclaimed 24-drum team from Foon Yew Chinese Independent School, both from Johor.
The group will perform around the country and their first show was launched by Deputy Higher Education Minister Dr Hou Kok Chung on Saturday at Wisma CNI, Shah Alam.
Dr Hou, quoting his findings, said studies and records showed that lion dance did not originate from China nor Malaysia, but from the western regions of China, which referred to where Xinjiang, Afghanistan or Iran are currently located.
“Lion dance was brought into the mainland during the Three Kingdom Era and spread through the country only during the Tang Dynasty. This shows that a culture is an amalgamation of various origins. Hence it should not belong to only one ethnic group but it can be best explored and depicted by one of them,” he said.
“In the past, it was once misunderstood but was nevertheless recognised as a national heritage two years ago. It has developed dynamically and has even piqued the interest of other ethnic groups,” he added.
He described high pole lion dance as an eminently elegant art and highly-skilled craft, and that Malaysia was No 1 in the world in this field.
Meanwhile, he said the 24 Festive Drums was a great cultural innovation presented by a Chinese community outside China.
“This art is a combination of music, dance, calligraphy and ancient wisdom,” he added.
The event was attended by many icons who had contributed significantly to the development of Chinese culture in Malaysia. Among them were Federation of Chinese Association Malaysia president Tan Sri Lim Gait Tong, Yayasan CNI president Datin Chuah Tek Lan, KL and Selangor Lion and Dragon Dance Association president Leong Lik Thong, Malaysia Chinese Cultural Society president Tai Shio Hwa and Malaysia Xiang Lian Youth Association adviser Datuk Ang Lai Hee.
Counsellor of the China Embassy in Malaysia, Su Qiang, praised the creation of the two Chinese arts that added depth and breadth to Chinese culture.
Prominent local and international calligraphers wrote the Solar Terms at the event, while SRJK(C) Jenjarom board of government chairman Gan Liam Chor donated a set of 24 Festive Drums to the Fo Guang Shan Dong Zen Temple. This was received by Master Jue Cheng.
For further details of the performance schedule, call 016-227 1613 or 017-310 0217.
Created in the 1980s, the 24 Festive Drums have been played by more than 16,000 students while Singapore, Taiwan, China, Thailand and America have their own 24-drum teams.
The beats are belted out in unison and synchronisation in a choreography that challenges one’s creativity. The drums are named with the 24 Solar Terms listed in the agriculture calendar used about 2,000 years ago in the downstream of Yellow River. The names are beautiful, in the likes of The Awakening of Insects, The Great Heat, The Arrival of Winter and others, to mark the subtle changes of nature throughout the year.
“Ancient emperors gave advice to their citizens according to these Solar Terms, so that people and nature could exist in harmony. Over the years, these terms were forgotten and even the underlying message on environmental conservation was neglected,” said poet Tan Chai Puan.
Tan and his friend, late musician Tan Hooi Song were the founders of the art.
Chai Puan came across the names moments after he and Hooi Song worked on a festive celebration featuring a drum performance involving nine members.
“Only then it dawned on me that we had such poetic terms to describe the seasons of the year, and I wanted to come out with a way that can link them to the modern context,” he said.
And so, the duo created an ensemble of 24 drums named after the solar terms.
Founded on a strong history, the energetic art soon gripped the interest of many and it continued to expand with players always eager to explore different choreography.
It is now one of the fastest developing forms of performance, and continues to inspire its learners in the aspects of discipline, exercise and creativity, besides the arts behind it.
The passion that fuels the development of lion dance in Malaysia has never wavered since the 1970s.
It is with that kind of “fire” that this art has put the country on the international map, with even lion dance players from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan turning to our masters here for advice.
Malaysian troupes have clinched numerous gold medals in international lion dance competitions. In fact, the much popular high pole lion dance is created by Johor Baru-based Malaysian Siow Ho Phiew.
He said when Malaysia organised its first lion dance competition in 1985, it grabbed international attention.
“Response was always on the rise. Troupes from around the globe battled it out on the ground, tables, chairs and poles. Soon, the poles reached higher into the sky with the teams trying to outdo each other and at one point they reached 6m,” he recalled.
Not only was the height too dangerous for the participants, such shows were visually unpleasant for the viewers.
In view of that, a protocol was drawn and Siow proposed a set of poles measuring between 2m and 3m be used for lion dancing in the future. It was warmly welcomed by his counterparts from different countries, and was soon recognised as the standard setting.
Today, high pole lion dance is loved and practised by not only the Chinese.
“Lion dance belongs to the world, that is why I never call it a Chinese thing. It is an art and an exercise that can be embraced by anyone,” he said.