Our weekend routine has evolved into low-key Saturdays, with whatever errands need to happen, and “an adventure” on Sundays. Sometimes that means a trip to a museum or a park, sometimes it means we just go out and see what we can find. Kuala Lumpur is getting ready for Chinese New Year, beginning 19 February. We’ve seen different events at the malls, and we decided this past Sunday’s adventure would be to go to Chinatown to see what was going on there. We didn’t expect a whole lot, since we are still over a week away from the actual beginning of the festival. But there are so many great places to eat, and so many interesting places to walk around and people watch, you can never go wrong with planning to have lunch there and just winging the rest of the afternoon.
As it turns out, we were in the right place at the right time. There was a Lion Dance competition outside of Central Market, or Pasar Seni. Central Market was originally a food market, known in Southeast Asia as a wet market. Now it has a lot of craft and clothing stores. It primarily caters to tourists, I think, but they host a lot of cultural events as well. (Maybe also for tourists, but still worth checking out!) We caught the last three performances of the day, the competition had been going on for hours by the time we got there.
In my non-expat life, I coach figure skating. So I am always interested in performance-based competitions. There were acrobatics involved, synchronicity between the performers and the musician, and the overall style of making the movements look like a lion. It was also pretty clear to me that there were certain elements that were required. From the sample size of three that we saw, it looked like there was an obstacle the lion had to overcome and it looked like the lion had to eat something. The last two groups also included blue plastic to represent water, I didn’t notice if the first group we saw included water or not. Each group was responsible for setting up their own props to set the scene, so each performance was very different from the others. This Wikipedia page gives some great history about the lion dance, but I couldn’t find anything describing how the competitions were judged (other than vague descriptions of “more difficult” acrobatics).
The “obstacles” seemed to include things for the lion to jump on and/or walk across. The performers did some great acrobatic tricks.
According to the history on Wikipedia, the “eating something” element historically included some kind of greenery and had a red envelope with money in it to reward the performers. The lion would “eat” the greenery and spit it back out, while the performer kept the envelope. These performers didn’t have the red envelope, but the performances did include greenery and flowers to eat. The final group used a large vase, apparently this is more difficult…although the lion didn’t really eat it, just moved it a little.
I had never seen a lion dance up close before. It was really beautiful and a lot of fun. I knew the performers controlled the lion’s eyes and mouth, but I never expected to be able to see different expressions on the lion’s face. That was really impressive.
Just like youth competitions in the U.S., the groups stayed to watch the other performers. Their families were also there to support them, and usually everyone from one group- performers and parents- wore the same t-shirts. This was pretty similar to what I remember from my days competing. It seemed like the performers, who were mostly teenagers, were responsible for setting up their own props and drums. We saw very little adult intervention, except for helping clear the stage area at the end, which was probably more about expediting the process. Surely there were adult coaches to do the choreography and manage practice, but it wasn’t clear to us, as observers, where they were. That was really different from skating competitions where you can always find the coaches. Micah and I both noticed that the judges had shirts that said something like “Malaysia Olympic Federation.” Lion Dancing is not an Olympic sport that I am aware of, but how cool for the performers that the judges were clearly big wigs in the sporting world!
Here’s a clip of the final group we saw. I liked them the best, but they didn’t get the highest scores out of the few that we saw. They also didn’t place in the top 3, but we didn’t see any of those groups unfortunately. The clip is also available on my YouTube page, here, in case the embedded clip has issues.