Monday, 15 February 2010

a new year

Firecrackers had been going off sporadically all morning, and the local lion-dance troupe, which is always kept very busy on the first day of the new year, is running behind schedule. It is due to arrive at midday, but it is past 1pm before their truck finally pulls up outside the village.

The first order of business is for the lion to pay its respects at the village shrine, accompanied by the standard ‘musical’ ensemble of three pairs of cymbals, a gong and a huge bass drum. The drum is played using two heavy sticks, and you can feel it as much as you hear it. The rhythms are complex, slow at first but building in intensity, then fading away and building again. The lion’s steps are intricate and carefully choreographed, and in time with the accompanying rhythms.

Last year, my wife asked me whether we wanted to put out some ‘bait’ for the lion.

“What kind of bait?” I asked.

“Lettuce!” she replied.

“Lettuce?” I repeated, incredulously.

You need to know that the Cantonese for ‘lettuce’ is sang choi; choi simply means ‘vegetable’, but sang, apart from its meaning in this context, can also mean ‘new lease of life’. It is yet another example of the word association that is an integral part of many Chinese beliefs. Another is the avoidance of the number four, which sounds like the Cantonese word for ‘death’ (buildings often don’t have a fourth floor).

The idea is that you hang the lettuce high enough that the lion can reach it only by standing on its hind legs, which as you can imagine requires some acrobatic prowess by the performers. Our Friend Tom was the front end of a lion when he was younger, and he tells me that I’d have made a good rear end, but definitely not now: it looks far too energetic. Anyway, the lion proceeds to ‘eat’ the lettuce, but what would you expect to happen next? That’s right! If you try feeding lettuce to a lion, it is going to spit it out again, and this is exactly what happens.

The following photographs were all taken last year. I took more photos this year, but the weather was pretty gloomy, so this year’s pictures are not very good. And we didn’t have a string of firecrackers to start the proceedings. In fact, there seems to have been a shortage of firecrackers this year. Perhaps the local police have been on the case.

The village headman dots the eyes of the lion to bring it to life.

The performance begins with a full string of firecrackers, which takes almost a minute to finish.

The percussion band that accompanies the performance.

There are many kinds of lion dance. This one takes place on top of a large bamboo pole.

The performance is over, and the lion takes a rest.

4 comments:

  1. "You need to know that the Cantonese for ‘lettuce’ is sang choi; choi simply means ‘vegetable’, but sang, apart from its meaning in this context, can also mean ‘new lease of life’. It is yet another example of the word association that is an integral part of many Chinese beliefs. Another is the avoidance of the number four, which sounds like the Cantonese word for ‘death’ (buildings often don’t have a fourth floor)."
    Fascinating stuff. What are the words for four and for death? Are there any other similar examples? Sorry to bother you, just roused my interest.

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  2. Wow i just love this. It's amazing how much symbolism and metaphor is behind a small event.

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  3. @Exasperated Youth, another instance of this wordplay and significance is the consumption of traditional Chinese cakes and fish. 'Cake' in Cantonese is go, but the Cantonese word for 'high' or 'higher'. So eating the cakes is supposed to mean that you are going to 'go higher' in the new year, increase in health, wealth and happiness. 'Fish' and 'abundance' in Cantonese both are pronounced yu and in the same way as the cakes, 'fish' is associated with things coming 'in abundance' in the new year.

    There are many other instances, but I think Dennis can point these out much more apparently, as I'm a native Hongkonger who has rarely explained these things that are so natural to me.

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  4. Dennis, as I said in my previous comment, you write about life in Hong Kong in a way I could never describe better. I'm going to follow you, because you take away some of that homesick inside me.

    Michael.
    Do you hate it too?
    "If you're going through Hell, keep going."
    uTube & iShare

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