Sunday, February 03, 2008

Spirits of the times

My sons and I enjoyed the Chinese Lion Dance performance at the local cafe in my neighborhood shopping strip. A New Year's tradition practiced by Chinese communities throughout Asia, the lion dance is performed by dance troupes at businesses, homes and public places to bring good luck, prosperity and good fortune for the Lunar New Year, very important attributes for the Chinese.

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.)

The big loud drum and cymbals accompanying the dancing also help ward off evil spirits, as do the firecrackers, another ubiquitous feature of Lunar New Year celebrations by most Chinese communities in Asia, especially in Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong, at least before they were banned.

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.

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At February 03, 2008 11:32 pm, Blogger Milly said...

Great to see that the lion dancing is alive and well in Australia. We live in Singapore where it is very common to come across a lion dance in a shopping mall at this time of year, but didn't know there were troups in rural Oz. Great blog, lovely pics. If you want to check out my blog, it is at

At February 04, 2008 10:22 am, Blogger Mark Lawrence said...

Hi Milly, thanks for dropping by. Yes, it's surprising what you'll find thriving in regional Victoria, and it's a kick to see it coming to Melbourne. Hope you enjoy your Chinese New Year in Singapore. Perhaps we'll hear from you about the lion dancing there.

At July 08, 2009 10:27 pm, Blogger hackpacker said...

Nice dragon, Mark. There is diversity in the regions isn't there? It just seems to have been hidden by redneckism.


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