Even among the eclectic, colourful row of shophouses along New Bridge road, the 岡州会馆 Kong Chow Wui Koon (KCWK) stands out. Gilded with red and green accents throughout the building, the entrance is especially stately with two striking red porticoes. The first heritage centre in Singapore, the KCWK – founded in 1840 – is also the sanctum of lion dance and kungfu that chronicles and preserves the history of both traditions. KCWK’s chief instructor of kungfu, Francis Wong, 43, sat down to share the clan’s lion dance history with us.
Francis’s affiliation with the clan goes back three generations, beginning with his grandfather who had moved to Singapore from China in the early 1950s. A young Francis followed his father (who was already a member of the clan) around when he attended the clan’s activities, joining officially as a martial arts and lion dance student at the age of 11.
“My father, in his early days, he did lion dance also. But he was [away for work in his] 20s. Later in his late 30s, he was invited back to become the chairman of the lion dance department,” he explained.
Francis (left) at a rod fighting performance with his younger brother at Chinatown’s annual traditional martial arts performance event in 1987. Photo courtesy of Francis Wong
Incorporating martial arts in its movements, kungfu (功夫) is fundamental to lion dance. Often perceived to be synonymous with martial arts, kungfu actually has a more prosaic denotation – the character 功 (kung) means work or achievement and the character夫 (fu) means man. Together, the characters illustrate excellence in hard work, a philosophy whose applications apply to and extend beyond the realm of martial arts.
“Kungfu is the direct translation of the Chinese word 功夫. But if you look up the word in the dictionary, kungfu simply means that you [have been doing] something for a very long time and you do it very well.” Francis said.
When he joined the clan in 1986, Francis was introduced to one of the senior kungfu masters at KCWK who at present still teaches and has been voluntarily sharing his craft for 54 years.
“People call him Teng Soke in Chinese, [or] Uncle Teng. He’s the guy [who] doesn’t like people to call him Master (or sifu) because he likes to practise and train as long as he can. Up till now he still trains a lot with us – he’s 77 years old now,” he said.
Uncle Teng’s modest and self-effacing disposition seemed to have rubbed off on his student. Francis, too, shares Uncle Teng’s philosophy – he declines to be called “sifu”, and up till now trains and practises regularly, honing his art. Francis, who has a full-time job as a wealth manager, keeps a disciplined training schedule practising every Friday evening till late, with Uncle Teng joining in the session as well.
“I don’t really call myself a “sifu”, but I [suppose] you can call me a coach or trainer; I train and I learn and I practise at the same time,” he said.
Traditional southern martial arts comprises different sects. Back then, talented kungfu practitioners were so skilled in their craft that they created a brand for themselves. The intent then was to gather enough power to overthrow the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), hence there was an emergence and proliferation of different martial arts styles, such as Wing Chun, Hong Gan, Cai Li Fuo, Zhou Jia Quan and Zhong Gan.
Francis performing at the clan’s 175th anniversary and SG50 celebration with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra at Resorts World Sentosa in 2016. Photo courtesy of Francis Wong
For Francis, it is paramount to observe the tenets of martial arts and lion dance traditions strictly. A firm believer in the value of traditional routines, he does not simplify nor does he modify the movements in lion dance solely for entertainment’s sake. Each segment of the lion dance is replete with symbolism, and when understood in its original context, the dance is a performative narrative of political history.
Lion dance is split into two categories – the Northern Lion and Southern Lion. During Chinese New Year, the Southern Lion Dance incorporates a sequence called 採青(“cai qing” which means “pluck the green”). This involves the “lion” using its “mouth” to “pluck” the green vegetables which are tied together with red packets and spitting the vegetables out while holding on to the red packet. This sequence is steeped in political symbolism. Phonetically, “cai qing” sounds like “stepping on the Qing dynasty” in Chinese. Red packets symbolise political funding in a time where the Manchurians (or the “Qings”) were viewed as invaders by people in southern China and many of them had to move to Southeast Asia as a result. The lion dance is now considered to bring good fortune.
On the third floor of the KCWK building, colourful lion heads wrapped in clear plastic line the top shelf, their massive eyes gazing out from under their thick furry lids with a theatricality more akin to that of a puppy than a lion. In fact, they look nothing like lions– and for good reason.. The “lion” is not actually the maned creature but a beast from Chinese folklore – the年 (“nian”) beast. After all, lions are not indigenous to China. Francis reckoned that it was perhaps only during the late Qing dynasty, with burgeoning trade in the region, that the lion was brought to China. When the Chinese saw the resemblance between the beast and the lion, the phrase lion dancing emerged.
Francis (1st row, 3rd boy from right) with a group in a praying session to pay respects to ancestors of the clan in 1989. Photo courtesy of Francis Wong
The Southern Lion Dance can also be further divided into the 佛山(“Fo Shan”) and 鶴山(“He Shan”) styles, with the former being more aggressive of the two in appearance and dancing style. Subsequently, a melding of both styles gave rise to a more contemporary佛鶴 (“Fo He”) style that Francis described as “strong and powerful, but flexible and light”.
The appearance of the “Fo Shan” lions’ varies according to the “age” of the lion. Black fur symbolises young fighting lions. “Older” lions have white fur as white symbolises wisdom. The golden lion is a nod to the character Liu Bei (161 – 223 AD) in The Romance of Three Kingdoms, the famed ruler and founder of the state of Shu Han in the late Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220 AD).
In the past, the routines or formations for the actual lion dance, which are a kind of obstacle course, were set by the client, hence there was always going to be a certain level of difficulty in the challenge. Nowadays, the routine or formation is devised by the troupe themselves, which results in an impressive and photo-worthy display that does not place much emphasis on the historical symbolism, and is also easier for the troupe to perform.
Francis as a young boy (in a yellow shirt at the forefront) and his grandfather (center in a white shirt ) taking part in Spring Praying at Peck San Theng Chinese cemetery in Bishan in 1988. Photo courtesy of Francis Wong
The evolution of lion dance from a response to political suppression into a more performance-oriented art form also introduced stories from Chinese literary and historical canon. For example, many lion dances now weave in stories of heroic characters from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Despite the art form’s various adaptations, KCWK adheres to the original lion dance routine.
“Only the few old clans like us still stick to the routines – the original routines – which could be very tedious and audience may not know how to appreciate,” he said. “But if you know how to look at it then you know what is happening.”
Francis laments the loss of the patriotic spirit that first fuelled lion dance. These days, the more commercial lion dancing troupes turn up the entertainment value to satisfy a contemporary audience who enjoys watching lion dancing for leisure and do not know the historical and political stories behind the art form. KCWK has resisted the urge to do the same and instead devotes itself to preserving the authenticity and heritage of the lion dance, so as to impart the stories behind the dance. Francis believes that culture is supposed to teach, not entertain.
“You can’t invent heritage, you can’t invent culture. And you cannot link culture with money,” Francis said.
When steps are simplified or omitted, the stories behind them get diluted or lost. It is only through the mastery of each move that the student can fully understand and embody the values embedded in the moves and ultimately build their characters. Through the years, Francis has seen the impact of consistent and thorough training on his students.
Francis heading a group performance on traditional martial arts at the Ho Yeah Festival, organised by the Bishan Youth Executive Committee in April 2018. Photo courtesy of Francis Wong
“I can say that those that train with us for many years, they have become a better person,” he said. While student dropout rates are high, those who have been training for a long time remain passionate advocates for lion dance and martial arts.
“In us, it’s something in our blood. We feel that, when we see this, our blood boils, when we see this, we have passion for heritage, especially martial arts for lion dancing, it’s very different, I think it’s something that we have found in the practice, and we appreciate so much, and of course in some way we are getting better, so it feels good that we control over something we have learned for many years, from kungfu,” he said.
The passion for and the discipline behind lion dance and martial arts also carry a more personal meaning for Francis, as they remind him of the past and a nostalgia that is intimately intertwined with family. He chooses to always use chopsticks for his meals (they also remind him of his grandfather) and he makes it a point to have dinner with his father every Friday at 6.30pm after his solo training at 5pm, and just before his 8pm class.
“Subconsciously I think I love all these things because I feel that I’m still linked up with people I love,” he said.
To Francis, culture is a discipline, and he is conscious of it every time he practises martial arts. He is reminded of it too through his interactions with people and his lifestyle habits. Francis had been patiently fielding our questions and showing us around, even demonstrating the percussion that accompanies a lion dance performance. It is clear that he is fiercely devoted to his art and is a remarkable embodiment of the values of his heritage.
At about 6pm, we wrapped up our interview, as Francis waited for his father to join him for their usual Friday dinner.
Written by: LY Kang
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