The Lions Dance On

loading Lion dance troupes from Hong Guang and Loo Pun Hong practice in front of the temple.

The lion dance is usually performed on Chinese festive occasions to bring luck and drive away evil spirits, and during Chinese New Year, lorries ferrying lion dance troupes from house to house are common sight in Penang – it is, after all, home to more than a hundred such troupes.

Penang Monthly explores three such lion dance troupes in the state – each with its own history and style.

Master Woo Chan and his lion dance troupe at the Penang Grocers Association.

Penang Grocers Association

Having its roots in Chinese associations, Penang’s lion dances can be traced back to at least the 1930s – brought over by immigrants from southern China, where the southern lion style originates from. It was performed at first as a symbol of cultural identity and practised intensely in kongsis, especially those with Guangdong backgrounds such as Soon Tuck Wooi Kwon (顺德会馆).

Penang Grocers Association is one of the oldest lion dance troupes in the state, and is still very active today. Founded in 1937, the association catered for owners and workers of grocery stores; it was estimated to have 81 members in 1940.1 In the same year, the lion dance group was established to provide a form of recreational activity and a sense of belonging. It soon took part in various fundraising activities in Penang to aid China in the war.2

In the beginning, training was rather informal and depended on itinerant instructors who travelled back and forth between Penang and China. It was not until the late 1950s that Master Woo Chan consolidated the Heshan tradition of its lion dance style.

The signature of Penang Grocers Association's lion dance troupe.

Originating from Guangdong, both the Heshan (鹤山) and Foshan (佛山) lions are two traditional types of Chinese southern lion styles popular in Penang. Known for its relatively round, flat-shaped mouth and round horn on the head, and matched with gentler postures, the Heshan lion tends to be cuter with a cartoon-like style. Compared to its counterpart, the Foshan lion on the other hand has a relatively wavy-shaped upper mouth – when it opens its mouth, a bell shape can be seen – and a sharper horn, and it tends to have stronger and more aggressive postures.

Woo Chan migrated to Penang from Heshan in his forties as a tobacco worker. Later, with his profound knowledge of martial arts and lion dance, he was invited to teach at the Penang Grocers Association.3 He led the group until the 1980s, instilling Heshan traditions such as those imitating the movements of cats.

During this period, when lion dance groups were common among Chinese associations, the Penang Grocers Association enjoyed a reputable status under the guidance of Woo Chan, who also taught in other associations such as Sun Wui Wui Koon (新会会馆). In those days, besides their daytime activities, the association also served as a lion dance training place at night; normal practice was held on the first floor, while the latest or secret styles were conducted in hidden places on the second floor, among other places.

While there has been a growing general trend of mixing Heshan and Foshan styles, including in the shape of the lion head, the Penang Grocers Association still follows the Heshan tradition passed down by its masters. Now under instructor Andrew Lai, who had begun learning lion dance in the association when he was in high school, the lion dance troupe mainly comprises members from the Sacred Heart High School.4

The majority of its 40 to 50 learners come from Chinese education backgrounds. There are a few students of other ethnicities. Lai knows well that to sustain the troupe in the current competitive environment, it is key to balance tradition while adding new elements to keep up with commercial needs. Income from its lion dance troupe is still used to sustain the 82-year-old Penang Grocers Association.

Modern Lion Dance Groups

Over the past 20 years, the mushrooming of sports cultural centres in the state has seen a general decline of lion dances from traditional Chinese association backgrounds. Be that as it may, the formation of the Federation of Penang Wushu, Lion and Dragon Dance Association in the late 1970s played a major role in reviving and uniting the various groups.

Today, the lion dance has found popularity at various important occasions, such as opening or anniversary celebrations of associations, wedding ceremonies – and during Chinese New Year, of course. Troupes receive financial support by taking part in commercial performances, which also inspires lion dance performers to be more innovative and flexible, and mix elements from other cultures.

In Penang, Zhou Jia boxing, a type of boxing established in southern China during the Qing dynasty, is the most impactful tradition adopted by lion dance groups in Penang today; Hong Guan Sports Gymnasium and Xuen Kang Sports Cultural Centre are among the two groups that practice it.

Hong Guan Sports Gymnasium

The Xuen Kang troupe performing the high pole lion dance.

While following the Zhou Jia lion style, Law remains receptive of other cultural elements without deviating from tradition. He sees this as a “mixture of various cultural elements”; this flexibility can be seen in their offering of various kinds of lion dances, including Heshan Lion, Foshan Lion, mixed Heshan and Foshan Lion, and the high pole lion dance.

The group consists of 30 active members, ranging from 10 to 30 years old. For Law, while commercial performances are a significant means of generating income, it is equally as important to pass down the legacy at the same time. And, given that it is difficult to learn, he believes that instead of being seen as a hobby, lion dance should be seriously treated as cultural inheritance to be preserved for future generations.5

Hong Guan is also involved in recent efforts to revive the lion dance troupes of old Chinese associations such as Loo Pun Hong (鲁班行).6 Loo Pun Hong’s lion dance troupe was established in 1956 but had ceased to be in the 1990s; it was revived two years ago with the support of Loo Pun Hong and the Federation of Penang Wushu, Lion and Dragon Dance Association.

Xuen Kang Sports Cultural Centre

Established in 2003, Xuen Kang was founded under the tradition of Zhou Jia boxing, which remains an important aspect of their many cultural performances. The lion dance group is deeply influenced by the Heshan tradition passed down through its masters. Apart from martial arts and lion dance, the association ceaselessly explores new forms, such as Warrior Drums and walking on stilts – the only troupe to do so in Penang.

For the past 16 years, the sports cultural centre has made painstaking efforts to sustain its lion dance troupe with 30 members ranging from six to 30 – and not limited to Chinese backgrounds.

Their hard work eventually paid off and they could finally afford to rent a landed house with proper space for training and storage – essential to a lion dance troupe. While restrictions remain, such as being allowed to practice with drums only once a week due to the tremendous noise and the house being in a residential area, the present situation is far better than before.

Lim, the troupe’s 37-year-old leader, holds to a strong philosophy of education. To him, while skills are essential, it is the discipline and self-exploration throughout the learning process that is far more precious to younger learners.7

Towards the Future

With more than a hundred groups, Penang’s lion dance is infused with various traditions, whether groomed in associations or emerging cultural centres. One thing that links them together is their passion for passing down this legacy while being financially sustained by commercial performances and competitions. Most importantly, the groups provide room for younger learners to improve themselves and their confidence outside school.

However, challenges remain. Many lion dance troupes are trying to rebuild the lion dance’s positive image by getting rid of elements of gangsterism. This includes emphasising discipline among members and systemising teaching methods, which was previously more dependent on the relationship between master and apprentice.

Then there is the tendency today to focus on the sports side of the dance instead of the cultural aspect, making it more widely accepted outside Chinese circles. With its official listing as an extracurricular activity in Chinese schools8, it is believed that the lion dance will continue to roar loudly.

Pan Yi Chieh is a research analyst in Penang Institute who was born in Taiwan but now lives in Penang. She is proud to be nurtured by the two beautiful islands she regards as home.

1“檳雜貨酱園同業决實行星期休業細則經規 定下星期起實行”, Nanyang Siang Pau, 5 November 1940, P.15.

2“雜貨行獅團將舞獅助賑”, Penang Sin Poe, 26 October 1937, P.2.

3The interview was on 21 December 2018. Special thanks to Foo Wai Keong (胡惠强), son of Master Woo Chan, for sharing precious knowledge and memories of his father and the lion dance group.

4Interview with Andrew Lai (黎维雄) on 12 December 2018.

5Interview with Law Choon Lim (刘俊霖) on 18 December 2018.

6Interview with the management of Loo Pun Hong (李冠锠、余本立、陈朋 成先生) on 30 December, 2018.

7Interview with leader Lim Kok Wei (林国维) on 19 December 2018.

8“張念群宣布,龍獅活動列正規課外活動,” 16 December 2018, China Press.

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