Spirits of the times
The dancing was organised by the local council and traders to celebrate the Chinese Lunar New Year, which is actually next weekend. It's one of those cultural community activities the council promotes to shore up their, and the neighbourhood's, multicultural credentials, but it also makes a lot of people happy – my boys and I included. (Sorry about the photos, they were the best I could do on my camera phone.)
There were no firecrackers in this Australian celebration, but the lion – or rather its performers - did 'eat' the lettuce hung up by the cafe owners. It required the young man performing the tail to hoist up the young man performing the head so he could reach the lettuce (all the while maintaining the illusion that it was the lion eating the lettuce with its mouth) and scatter the shredded leaves around the cafe to spread good fortune.
Eating the lettuce also involved 'consuming' the envelope of money tied with it, payment for the dance troupe. There were some other pretty spectacular acrobatics on the part of the performers, including the young man performing the lion's head standing – at full height – on the tail performer's shoulders, and the young percussionists were giving a rousing performance, so they certainly deserved it!
Once finished at the cafe, the troupe slowly made its way up the street, performing at whichever business had arranged for them to do so - signaled by the lettuce suspended in the doorway, along with the envelope with payment of course. Interestingly, it was not only businesses owned and run by Chinese or Vietnamese traders who had hung out the lettuce to invite the lion, and so good fortune, and this is a pretty mixed multicultural neighbourhood.
I've seen lion dance performances in Melbourne's Chinatown in previous years' New Year festivities, so the fact the lion dance was performed in Australia was not itself noteworthy. I've also seen some spectacular lion dances with some incredible acrobatics and daring while growing up in Southeast Asia, so despite the energy and enthusiasm, this performance wasn't remarkable. Rather, it was the fact that the performers were a troupe of predominantly young Aussie men and women, and kids, from Central Victoria – Bendigo, in fact. And they were accompanied by their parents and other adults, so it was quite a community and family affair.
You don't really expect a bunch of white kids to be performing the Chinese lion dance to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck for the Chinese New Year, but somehow this seemed perfectly reasonable to me. As did the fact that the troupe was from Bendigo, which was a major centre of Chinese settlement in nineteenth century Victoria, especially during the gold-rush era. In fact, the Chinese museum in Bendigo housed one of the largest dragons – of the dragon dance variety – in the world.
It is quite encouraging to think that regional Australia can be in touch with its Asian heritage beyond the compulsory country Chinese restaurant and Chow Mein – and bring it to share in Melbourne, which is so usually so proud of its strong multicultural make-up! Hopefully this is a growing trend, and we'll see Australia waking up more to the Asian aspects of our heritage.