Australia

Lion Dance helps young Chinese-Australians learn about heritage

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With Lunar New Year celebrations going on around the country, a Lion Dance troupe is going through a revival after years of inactivity, focusing on helping young Chinese-Australians learn about their heritage.

The Lion Dance may be one of the most well-known events during the Lunar New Year, seen as a bringer of good luck and prosperity to the community.

The tradition stretches back for over 2,000 years, with the earliest known recordings coming from the Qin Dynasty around 200 BCE.

In Western Australia, one of Perth's oldest lion dance groups is making a comeback after disbanding in 2012.

Chung Wah's Lion Dance Troupe had a rich history dating back to the 1960's, performing at international contests and being ranked as the fifth best troupe in the world.

The loss of the group was a big blow to the community, according to Chung Wah Honorary Secretary Sheila Rejek.

"The Chung Wah Lion dance suffered some setbacks due to a lack of funding and support," she said.

"Sadly it was actually disbanded for a good three to four years."

Chung Wah Lion Dance Sheila
Chung Wah Association's Honorary Secretary, Sheila Rejek.
SBS

Sheila and others in the community believed it was a loss to let such a strong legacy and cultural connection fade away, volunteering to help run the organization in the years that followed.

“When the current executive management team took over office, lion dance was given the very much needed support and encouragement," Ms. Rejek said.

"As a result, it was reinstated."

The Chung Wah Association was Perth's first ethnic community organisation, and today is one of the biggest Chinese communities in the west.

The loss of their troupe caused concern in the community, especially when it came to introducing their children to their culture.

When the new Lion and Dragon Dance Troupe was created, instead of creating a traditional adult group, they instead focused on giving Chinese-Australian kids the chance to experience their heritage first hand.

Stephen Kum Chung Wah  Lion Dance
Troupe Leader, Stephen Kum, talking to the troupe before their performance for Lunar New Year in Perth.
SBS

Stephen Kum is the troupe leader of the dance group and grew up with a passion for the performance.

"I was involved with the lion dance since quite a young age, like seven years old in Singapore," he said.

"The lion dance is part of my hobbies, and I can't wait until Chinese New Year so I can get involved in Lion Dancing."

Mr Kum believes having children involved in the program is an important way for them to experience their family's history and culture, instead of just reading about it in books or watching others.

Part of that push was purchasing two “baby lion” costumes from China for the younger kids to use, as well as making the program as inviting as possible to newcomers.

Much of the lion dance is tied to Kung Fu, or Wushu, which traditionally may be seen as a barrier to entering the troupe.

Instead of teaching a martial art, the instructors focused on the dance itself, giving each member of the troupe the chance to learn about all aspects of the performance.

Chung Wah Lion Dance Freddy
Chung Wah Lion Dance Instructor Freddy Foo with his son Ethan (7) after a Lion Dance training Session.
SBS

Freddy Foo is one of Chung Wah’s instructors and says that the inclusive nature of the group means his children are able to experience something he did in his youth.

“It is good to have kids actually share their multi-culture and try to learn the Chinese culture," he said.

"I'm actually quite glad that my kids have that passion and interest, and learn Lion Dance."

The new focus also encouraged girls to get involved in the troupe, with an open invitation for all.

While not a single gender sport, lion dance troupes are predominantly male, potentially leading to misunderstandings on whether girls are welcome.

Chung Wah Lion Dance Evonne
Evonne and the Chung Wah Lion Dance troupe moments before they began their Lunar New Year Festival Performance.
SBS

Evonne had always loved the lion dance and was ecstatic when she found out there was a group available.

"I had a passion for lion dance since I was small, but I never really knew how to join, or if I could,” she said.

“I didn’t know if it was something I could do either because it seemed really hard. But last year, a friend introduced me to Chung Wah Lion Dance Troupe and I’ve really enjoyed it.”

The troupe's four lions will be performing as part of the Lunar New Year celebrations, bringing a drum beat and colour to the streets of Perth.

And while the group may have gone through a few years of disbandment, the team at Chung Wah are hopeful that the group's future will be just as lucky as the lions themselves.

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