Tai Hang's fire dragon and Hong Kong's traditions

March 05, 2016 08:01
Guided by two pearls, the fire dragon is paraded through the village, spurred on by reverberating drums and piercing firecrackers. Photo: Brendon Hong

Every year, locals retell the story of how Tai Hang’s fire dragon came to be.

When the neighborhood was still a small Hakka village settled by fishermen and farmers, a typhoon swept through, destroying everything in its path.

After it passed, a plague hit, inflicting illness on the battered population. As if that misery wasn’t enough, a python slithered into the village, devouring livestock raised by the farmers.

Then, with perfect timing, an oracle appeared, convincing the villagers that the only way to end their series of misfortunes was to stage a dance for three nights, and a fire dragon had to be involved.

Presumably, the logic went like this: dragons breath fire, and fire cleanses all.

Someone in the village convinced the others that the python was actually spawn of a dragon king, and a troublesome child could only be chased off by its raging parent.

So the villagers of Tai Hang built their dragon out of straw and twine, measuring 67 meters in length and covered completely with lit incense sticks.

Guided by two pearls—also made of incense stick—the fire dragon was paraded through the village, spurred on by oily, reverberating drums and piercing firecrackers.

It was a group effort, from the dragon’s construction to manning it, and everyone pitched in. Those afflicted by the plague were cured after the third night, so goes the lore.

The dance coincided with the Mid-Autumn Festival, and an annual tradition was born.

Now, when it’s that time of the year that involves lanterns and mooncakes, the streets of Tai Hang are packed with elbow-to-elbow crowds. The same dragon is still built every year, and 70,000 incense sticks are used to light up the prop manned by 300 performers.

When it comes to old traditions, Hong Kong is a strange study. In a strange twist of fate, its status as a British colony protected certain forms of cultural heritage. Old temples, the practices of Chinese festivals, and quirky superstitions weren’t purged in this city like they were in many places in mainland China by overzealous Maoists.

Sure, plenty survived the Red Guard’s march, knowledge preserved by word of mouth and artifacts hidden, but the collective psyche was, and is, still scarred.

In the 1960s, my family’s ancestral hall in Guangdong was knocked down by misguided men and women in red scarves—something that many clans across the country experienced—and it was only recently rebuilt.

It wasn’t just the original structure that was lost, but also the history it contained and tales of the bloodline it housed and sheltered.

Now, many towns and villages in China have reignited their traditional celebrations, but in many cases, they’ll tell you something is missing, perhaps that touch of continuity that traditions are supposed to offer, a link to our past, and maybe our collective identity.

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The fire dragon dance coincides with the Mid-Autumn Festival. Photo: Brendon Hong
The streets of Tai Hang are packed with elbow-to-elbow crowds. Photo: Brendon Hong

EJ Insight contributor