Remnants of the old Tai Wai village still exist along the Shing Mun River in the New Territories, but where there were once fields growing rice, bananas and lychees, there are now noodle restaurants, a McDonald’s and old factory blocks. We make our way to one of the industrial complexes and take the cargo lift to the second floor. Here, between a bakery training school and a small café, are rows and rows of lion heads staring straight into our eyes, beckoning us to meet the Master of Lions: Lee Yun-fook.

1400_850-1Lee has run the Lee Yun Fook Chinese Martial Arts Association in this space since 2005, but he has been teaching the art of lion and dragon dancing since 1983. “I used to teach in my own home in Mongkok, on the terrace, but if you make a lot of noise you receive complaints,” he says. “The centre of town is too dense for these activities now.” Here in the industrial area, Lee’s students can practice freely and bang away on the drums, cymbals and gongs that accompany a traditional Chinese lion dance.

Calling it a dance is somewhat misleading, because it is actually a kung fu practice that requires significant skill. Lee started when he was 15 years old, when he followed a friend of his to kung fu class. He enjoyed it so much, he dedicated all his free time to practising at the dance school, known in Cantonese as a mou5 gun2 (舞館). “Nowadays, people are interested, but they are interested in many other things as well,” he says. “It is harder to find a student who is truly devoted. They may come for a few months out of curiosity, then move onto something else.” His own commitment as a teenager led him to becoming a master of the southern Shaolin martial art style known as Hung4 Kyun4 (洪拳). He opened his own school at 25 years old.

Is it difficult to learn? “Let’s say it is easy to learn, hard to do,” laughs Lee. It takes at least three to five years of intensive training to master the different elements required for lion dancing. There are 10 different styles of basic steps, but Lee trains all his students in the foundation of kung fu first, including control of the sword. His martial arts club is open to all ages from four years old to 80. He aims to adjust the teaching style to the character of each student, making sure they feel the experience is enjoyable and flexible. Lee’s kung fu club is one of the few that still operates in a traditional manner – you can come to the club and practice when you want, something well suited to the hectic schedules of today’s students.

1400_850-kidsLion dancing is deeply rooted in the identity of each kung fu club. Lion dance (mou5 si1 舞獅) is not to be confused with dragon dancing (mou5 lung4 舞龍); the former requires just two people for the whole animal, compared to anywhere from 10 to 20 for the long dragon. Historically, lion dance performances were a way for a village to represent the honour of the master as well as a way for clubs to compete against each other. Masters were strict on discipline and loyalty – your club was your family. Rivalries were so fierce that different clubs sometimes attacked one another, which led the Hong Kong government to briefly ban lion dancing for a while.

Today, the Hong Kong government supports associations like Lee’s and the Hong Kong Chinese Martial Arts & Lion Dance Association — of which Lee is the vice chairman — with financial aid and school programmes. Once a custom confined to kung fu clubs and serious practitioners, Lee now spends most of his time teaching afternoon classes in primary and high schools, and training his core team for international competitions. “It is now seen more as a sport and a cultural art,” he says. “It has actually become trendy again.”

Behind Lee’s desk is a golden wall of trophies and champion cups stacked from floor to ceiling. They go as far back as 1984, when his team won its first competition for lion dancing. He trains Hong Kong’s national team and they travel almost every month to compete around the world. The Hong Kong team focuses on the southern style of lion dance, which originated in Guangdong and has unique footwork and vigorous drumming.

1400_850-youngsterThanks to a long history of emigration from southern China, the southern style of dance is much more common around the world than the more playful northern style. That’s true for the lion itself. While northern China, Japan, Korea and Indonesia all have their own versions of the lion, it’s the southern Chinese lion, with its long tail and menacing eyes which swivel left and right, that is most recognisable. Many Southeast Asian countries with a long history of Chinese settlement have adopted the southern style, including Malaysia, Singapore, Macau, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia.

Lion dancing emphasises the lion’s natural movements as well as acrobatic styles and skills. Lee shows us video footage of one of his team’s competitions. The two-man lion jumps rapidly onto small platforms raised on poles, one dancer lifting and lowering the other in a dazzling display of agility and grace. Each performance is accompanied by a story. Sometimes the lion is journeying into the mountains to find water; sometimes it is busy fighting off evil spirits.

The irony of all this is that lions are not native to China. They were brought along the Silk Road from Persia and Central Asia as tributes to the emperor. The Chinese word for lion, si1 (獅) may have come from the Persian word for lion, which is pronounced “sheer.” Since ancient times, Chinese dancers have impersonated animals in masked dances for exorcism rituals, and detailed descriptions of the lion dance appeared by the Tang Dynasty (618-907), where it was recognised as a foreign dance.

1400_850-lionsOver the centuries, there were many different versions of the dance, but the southern style developed later based on various myths. Some say that the dance was used to drive away and celebrate the disappearance of the mythical monster Nian during the New Year; others say that it was Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong (1735-1796) who ordered the lion to be used in festivals after he dreamt it would bring him good luck while on a tour of the south. Whatever the origin, the lion dance is now used to celebrate festivals such as Mid-Autumn and Chinese New Year, as well as village fêtes and even shop openings.

This week, for Mid-Autumn Festival, you might catch a pair of lions dancing in a square, jumping and climbing up a pole to catch a bundle of green vegetables tied to a red lai see packet, performing the “plucking of the greens” (coi2 ceng1 採青) – the word for vegetables (coi3 ) sounds similar in Cantonese to fortune (coi4 ). The dancers get to keep the money in the lai see packet as a reward.

Back at Lee’s studio, a group of children have arrived to practice their moves. A four year old is in charge of the drum, while the others range from five to 12 years old, all stomping their feet as their move their rhythmically move their hands back and forth. They look serious, but between sets they laugh and run around, trying on the lion heads. Gone are the days when the master was only feared and obeyed.

“I want to draw them in and allow them the freedom to enjoy the practice,” says Lee. “It is not about scaring them – it gives them confidence and makes them brave. Before, half out of ten students may have become teachers. Nowadays [it’s] maybe one in a hundred. It is getting harder to pass on the skills properly, but I try.”

In the cacophony of drums, gongs and cymbals, the mini lions are now dancing vigorously from side to side, shaking their heads and flexing their eyes with power. Lee scatters a few flower bouquets for them to pick up with their wide paper mâché mouths. They may be tamer, but they are still just as impressive.

Hong Kong Lee Yun Fook Chinese Martial Arts Association, Room 208, 2/F, Shing Chuen Industrial Building, 25-27 Shing Wan Road, Tai Wai, New Territories.

Note: Cantonese romanisation in this article is based on the jyutping system, which uses numbers to correspond to the six main tones in Cantonese.