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Troupes keep lions dancing through Covid restrictions in Singapore

SINGAPORE – The prancing of lions will continue this Chinese New Year in spite of the pandemic, with some performances going online as troupes here seek to meet the requests of regular clients.

Six of eight troupes The Straits Times spoke to said they will proceed with scaled-down performances this year to uphold traditions and the relationships they have with their long-time customers, even though safety measures have drastically reduced their engagements.

While past years will see 10 to 15 performances each day during the busy Chinese New Year period, many of them said they only have about 15 performances in all this year, and estimate a drop in revenue of about 80 to 90 per cent.

Stamford Dragon and Lion Dance Troupe leader Daniel Soong, 60, was initially hesitant to apply for the cai qing permit, as fewer performances means it is hard to cover transport costs.

The permit allows troupes to perform the cai qing ritual – plucking the green in Mandarin – synonymous with lion dancing, which brings good luck and fortune.

Mr Soong, who works full-time in the financial sector, said: “We only cover one to two venues a day, it’s not productive. It’s hard to cover the cost of renting a lorry for a day.”

Nonetheless, he applied for the permit due to performance requests from four long-time customers.

The troupe of 47 years will perform at three hotels and seven showrooms and service centres of a car company this year. They also pre-recorded a performance for Bukit Panjang Community Club.

“The bosses said they wanted to cheer up and motivate their staff with a lion dance show,” he said.

“They are our regular customers. If they want us to do it, we will do it.”

Some troupes are also experimenting with new formats to meet Covid-19 restrictions, such as by pre-recording their shows or adopting live-streamed performances.

Leader of Qingwei Lion and Dragon Cultural Troupe Leon Ng, 28, will have about 20 performances done via live-streaming.

Many of the requests come from families who are not able to watch their physical performances at residences this Chinese New Year.

While virtual performances lack audience interaction and the festive atmosphere, Mr Ng sees it as a way to give back to his sponsors and regular customers.

“Some of them came forward to make donations, although we cannot perform live for them,” said Mr Ng. “Our clients are like our friends. We take it as doing our part to give back to those who support us.”


Under Covid-19 restrictions, lion dancers cannot perform at public spaces such as coffee shops, markets, shopping mall atriums and all residential areas this year. PHOTO: STAMFORD DRAGON LION ARTS AND CULTURAL TROUPE

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“It is still something new, but we’re open to trying it,” he added.

Under Covid-19 restrictions, lion dancers cannot perform at public spaces such as coffee shops, markets, shopping mall atriums and all residential areas this year.

Performances can continue in offices, factories, hotels, temples and shops in commercial buildings.

No more than 50 people are allowed at these venues, and they must observe the 1m safe distancing rule.

The number of performers is also capped at eight, which troupes say limits the use of big props and more elaborate stuntwork.

As a result, 127 troupes applied for the cai qing permit this year, a one-third drop compared to 2019.

Some who have applied for cai qing permits this year are defraying expenses from their own pockets, while others are downsizing to reduce costs.

“Even though we are performing, the amount can only cover about one to two months,” said founder of Yan Wong Cultural Troupe Eugene Wan. The 42-year-old businessman said he will likely pay rental fees with his personal savings from February onwards.

“We must still perform as it is an annual event. It is the culture we are trying to hold onto,” he said.


Performances can continue in offices, factories, hotels, temples and shops in commercial buildings. PHOTO: YAN WONG CULTURAL TROUPE

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Mr Woo Ngee Heng, 52, said the Tian Heng Athletic Association might move out of the warehouse they rent after February if they cannot negotiate for lower rental costs. His annual rent currently costs $12,000.

“We are prepared to burn the lion heads that are getting old and to store our equipment in our members’ homes,” said Mr Woo, the association’s head of general affairs.

Leader of Wenyong Dragon and Lion Dance Troupe Mr Devon Lim, 29, who helps out in a family business selling auto parts, plans to explore new business ideas and earn more money to maintain his troupe, in case restrictions do not ease up in the next few years.

“I cannot bear to let this go,” said Mr Lim, who founded the troupe 12 years ago. “No matter what, we will continue to do lion dance. It is our hobby, it is about the tradition.”

But even the more tradition-bound within the community said they may yet explore new frontiers.

Lei Sheng Dragon and Lion Dance Troupe leader Lawrence Tan, 48, turned down several requests for live stream performances, and will only be performing for one client this year.

“Video and real-life are very different. The older generation, like me, may find it hard to accept,” said Mr Tan.

“But in the future, if we have no choice, then maybe.”

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