KOTA KINABALU: They’re not Chinese, but this lion dance troupe is fierce about carrying on that ancient Chinese tradition.
And they are a lot more enthusiastic about doing so than local Chinese youth.
The problem is that the SRJK(C) Yick Nam Inanam dragon, unicorn and lion dancers have lost their championship-winning ways.
The troupe has members from the Kadazandusun, Murut, and Bajau, as well as several of Filipino descent. And they all dance their tails off, but they need new blood.
Augustine Beda, 39, the troupe leader told FMT some of the members have been with the troupe for years. “Those who started as children around 10 years ago are now married with children themselves and they are still with us.”
“They all fell in love with dragon and unicorn dancing, but everyone’s favourite is lion dancing.”
Augustine and Arman Duilah, also 39, are the longest serving members of the troupe, both having joined at age nine.
The troupe was trained by master Lee Chee Fat. Over the years, they have won several national titles, and two international competitions in China. All without any Chinese dancers.
“The closest we had to actual Chinese were Sino-Kadazans playing the drums, cymbals and the lion tail,” said Arman.
When he and Augustine joined the troupe 30 years ago it was almost entirely Chinese.
“There was only me and Augustine, who’s a Dusun from Inanam,” said Arman, himself a Muslim from Manggatal.
Besides learning to play the instruments and perform the dances, they both learned the meanings and taboos behind each dance from their Chinese team-mates.
“It’s not just some random dance where you jump from one place to another,” said Augustine.
“When we jump onto the steel poles it means the lion is willing to go through the rigours of hunting food. Our storylines mostly involve jumping over water.
“And if we’re not using poles, we put oranges on the ground for the lion to pick up. We arrange them so there is good feng shui.”
As for dragon dances, not everyone wants a dragon in their house.
Augustine explained, “The Chinese believe the dragon will sweep away everything in the house, both bad and good. So those whose houses have unclean things will want us to come in, but others will only allow the dragon to circle the house. It’s like the dragon is protecting their home.”
Arman added that in the old days, senior Chinese members would not allow juniors to touch the horn and mirror on the lion’s head. “That was a big no-no because they believed if we touch them the power to ward off evil spirits will be lost.”
Charles Laboh Ukab, 25, a Dusun Murut, told FMT he has been with the group since he was 14 and loves performing the lion dance.
“I play the head and love the challenge of jumping from pole to pole. We go through years of practice, and sometimes injuries from falls, to master this skill.
“I am proud to do this because if we don’t keep it alive, who will?”
It’s a good question.
Augustine is not sure why young people from the Chinese community are no longer interested in joining his lion dance troupe.
“Maybe they feel there are better things to do, what with smartphones and online games.
“It could also be that they are not fond of waiting around under the hot sun. Or maybe their parents are frightened of injuries,” he said.
Clients sometimes ask them why there are no Chinese in the troupe when there are still pure Chinese members in other Yick Nam groups, such as Penampang.
Arman said they have tried to tempt Chinese youngsters to join Yick Nam Inanam but so far without success.
“But we won’t give up because we want to make our group as diverse as possible,” he said.
Augustine chipped in, “Another motivation is that we were champions before but now other groups have overtaken us and that hurts. We want to be back where we were.
“Another thing that inspires us is that one of our most active members, Tristan Chong died while performing with us in 2015. He suffered a stroke while drumming in a tournament in Labuan.
“We were devastated, and now all of us, especially the newer members, are spurred on to do better for the team as they were all trained by Chong.”
Chong’s photo is emblazoned on the group’s drum.
“His spirit is strong and we want to win for him.”
But to do so will not be easy.
These dedicated lion dancers are definitely hunting for new blood to make them the mane attraction once more.
So how about it, Chinese youth? Are you ready to switch off your laptop, step up to the pole, and help these lions claw back their pride and prize-winning roar?