Lions Roar on Oahu


The 2002 Malaysian national champion team performed at Taste of Honolulu last year.

Many years ago, in heaven, a mischievous lion ate the emperor’s peach. The emperor did not take kindly to this fruit poaching and killed the lion, throwing its head down to rot. A goddess felt pity for the animal, and she tied the head back onto the lion’s body with a ribbon. She then set it free on Earth, where it helped chase away evil spirits. There are other stories about the origins of Chinese lion dancing, but what’s interesting about them all is what’s missing. Lions aren’t native to China.

Historians believe that contact with traders from Africa and West Asia introduced lions–or at least descriptions of them–to the Chinese court. Since then, the animal has been seen as a divine guardian, a powerful animal of great nobility and dignity. The Chinese consider the lion dance to be a way to spread these blessings within a community. While it’s dubbed a “dance,” it’s really a sport, an extension of martial arts, and today’s participants aren’t reaching for a peach as much as for national pride.

This month, teams from around the world convene for the Hawaii World Invitational Lion Dance Championships, held at the Blaisdell Arena. “France is involved in lion dancing, England. It’s not just the Asian countries,” explains Harlan Lee, vice president of the U.S.A. National Dragon-Lion Dance and Martial Arts Federation. “This championship signifies how lion dancing is evolving around the world.” Teams are expected from Malaysia, Hong Kong, China, Indonesia, Taiwan, Singapore, Australia, the U.K., Japan and Hawaii.

Teams perform gasp-inducing acrobatic stunts on 15-inch-diameter platforms, perched atop 6- to 10-foot steel poles. Judges scrutinize the teams’ every move.

“The lion is just papier-mache and bamboo,” explains Lee. “The team has to put in the emotions of the lion—how would it act when scared? How does it move with the instrument, the drum? The drum stands for the heartbeat of the lion; there are 14 different patterns of drumming.”

Judges also critique the difficulty of the stunts and the costumes. “If the lion’s eyes or ears fall off, or the pom-poms, that’s bad,” Lee says. “There was one championship where the team was perfect, but a shoelace came out and that was a five-point deduction. Of course, if you fall off the poles, you are disqualified.”

Asian teams remain world leaders. “They are subsidized by the government,” says Lee. “If you are representing Hong Kong or China, for example, the government might give land for a training center. A U.S. team might practice after work; but in Asia, they practice every day.”