In the distance Bing saw eight peaks over the peninsula. Having fled the Mongols from his home in Lin’an (present-day Hangzhou), Hong Kong’s alien landscape set the seven year old’s imagination racing. In his eyes the eight peaks took the form of eight enormous dragons and he, the last emperor of Song, was the ninth. Henceforth, he decreed, the peninsula would be known as Kowloon (gau2 lung4 九龍) – Nine Dragons.
The Emperor Zhao Bing wasn’t Hong Kong’s first dragon, nor would he be its last. The island metropolis is alive with them. Weyrs of dragons weave zephyr-like through dragon gates inset into gleaming glass edifices. They stand moveless in the form of stone; they lend their name to streets, buildings, food, and even people – the city’s favourite son, Bruce Lee, is the “little dragon.” Watching over the land and ensuring good fortune — at least when they are pleased — dragons are alive and well in Hong Kong.
Dragons sit at the hierarchical peak of celestial creatures. They are Hong Kong’s apex cryptid. Master Hui Ka-hung, who is currently creating Dai Gum Loong, the new longest dragon in the world, explains that the origin of dragons is a mystery. “They are a work of the imagination. Some people say an emperor dreamed them up,” he says.
The dragon of Chinese lore has horns, claws, and scales. Flanked by wheeling phoenixes, its spine studded backbone delineates a serpentine anatomy and a winding flightpath. Amongst the clouds, dragons control the weather – life giving rain and deadly typhoons. Grasped in a tiger-like claw or floating by the dragon’s smiling maw is a flaming pearl wherein lies the creature’s power. Dragons are symbolic of that power and are shorthand for authority, ferocity and auspiciousness. For centuries dragons were emblematic of imperial Chinese rule. Images of dragons with five claws were reserved for the exclusive use of emperors. Less regal dragons have generally been adopted as totems of luck and good fortune across the Chinese diaspora. Others have been claimed by criminal organisations whose members adorn their bodies with the mythical beings; ink talismans proclaiming ferocious strength and the divine right to rule the underworld. Dragons are everywhere and take many forms.
Near the main square by Peng Chau’s ferry pier, master paper craftsman Ringo Leung unbolts a meat locker. With the flick of a switch, the room is filled with the insectile buzz of fluorescent lights; housed here, amongst the chops and flanks, is a rare and ancient creature, a gwan dei long (gwan2 dei6 lung4 滾地龍), a “rolling-on-the-ground dragon.” Carefully taking the old dragon down from atop the deep freezer where he lives, Leung lovingly picks a fleck of dust from the dracontine brow. This dragon was entrusted to Leung by an elder papercrafts master just before his death. “Take good care of him and preserve this for the future,” the elder sifu implored. The gwan dei long is small and elegant. His ornate face is studded with shimmering embellishments. Gilded horns perch neatly atop the head behind a pair of emerald ears. Age has not faded the dragon’s crimson cheeks nor his orange muzzle. The visage is probably as vivid now as the day it was painted.
Because the gwan dei long’s dance is so technically demanding, it is rare to find them. “Hong Kong doesn’t often see gwan dei long,” remarks Leung, “it’s a difficult dance to perform and very strenuous.” Unlike other dragons which call for a retinue, the gwan dei long is manoeuvred by only two dancers. The dragon remains coiled on the ground, preening himself. Inexpertly performed this might look like the dancers are simply lolling around on the floor but when done right, it is a masterful display.
A second dragon may soon come under Leung’s care – Bendigo’s Sun Loong, the world’s longest imperial dragon. Leung will be tasked with restoring the quinquagenarian beast. “Sun Loong is in fragile shape,” he says with a sigh. “You can’t dance with him or he’ll break up. The best you can do is walk him around.” At this, Anita Jack, one of Sun Loong’s guardians, laughs. “That could have more to do with the difference in athleticism between the Hong Kong dragon dancers and our Australian ones. Our dragon dance is much more gentle and sedate.” Dancing styles aside, the sifu will have to painstakingly steam clean each of the geriatric dragon’s 7,000 scales and assess what other damage he can repair. Most challenging will be the wear and tear on Sun Loong’s interior cane structure which is buried under layers of silk and papier-mâché that must not be damaged.
Though Leung is keen to rehabilitate the elderly Sun Loong, he must be careful to balance repair work against the need for authenticity. Leung is regarded as one of the greatest traditional paper craftsmen but he is as much a designer and inventor as an artisan. His modern dragons are the offspring of tradition and technology. “In the 70s Hong Kong’s paper crafts were at their peak. We do not have those materials and have lost some of those skills but we have new technology and abilities,” says Leung.
Because of the need to faithfully restore Sun Loong, Leung won’t be implementing these innovations in the older dragon but his designs for new dragons are a seamless melding of past and present; his creations are feather light (at least by dragon standards) because they incorporate new features such as skeletal frames of milled aluminium and poles of carbon fibre rather than bamboo. Leung eschews the use of materials solely for the sake of tradition and at certain points one might think the master was designing a jet or sports car rather than a traditional dragon.
“Why should it take two days to assemble a dragon?” he asks. “Very stupid! We should fasten them together with carabiners, not ropes. We should prop them up on tripods instead of transporting solid wooden stands!” With these features, Leung’s dragons would be quick to set up and be adjustable in length. This would give them the versatility to perform in venues of all sizes. “Dragons are high art but should also be functional,” he proclaims. “They’re not just there to be stared at.”
Peng Chau is home to many cryptid curiosities and strolling down village lanes to the Peng Chau Association, we are introduced to another. In the hall, a child studies his alphabet while elderly islanders lounge in a black settee. Hung incongruously above a fridge is a creature that looks like a cross between a goldfish and a shark; it is a dragon fish (ngou4 jyu4 鰲魚). These creatures are rare; Peng Chau is one of the few places in Hong Kong where they are paraded. “They’re important to fishing people, as symbols of good luck, and tenacity,” Leung explains.
The legend of the dragon fish tells of carp swimming upriver, leaping over waterfalls, through dragon gates. Few had the strength but those that did transformed into powerful dragons. Dragon fish are often seen on temple roofs. There are two atop Peng Chau’s Dragon Mother Temple, which was built in the 1970s and is one of only two temples of this style in the world, according to Anita Jack. The Peng Chau temple’s counterpart is across the border in Guangdong province. The temple venerates Lung Mo (龍母), a legendary wise woman of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) who birthed five dragons from a stone.
Unlike the ancient Sun Loong, Hong Kong dragons most often meet a fiery demise. Aged dragons are burned in a ritual that returns them to heaven rather than leaving them to moulder in the humid heat. Far from the shores of Peng Chau, nestled amongst the verdant slopes of Mount Kellett and High West, another dragon burns every autumn only to return the following year: Pok Fu Lam’s fire dragon. Rendered in straw, bamboo and rope, the fire dragon is minimal by comparison to some of his ornate saurian cousins but on the eve of Mid-Autumn he blazes into life.
In recent years, Alun Siu Kwun-long has presided over this autumnal dragon. The Pok Fu Lam native coordinates funding, volunteers and paraders. He also sees to it that the tradition is passed down to the next generation of Pok Fu Lam villagers. According to Siu, the process of assembling the gargantuan beast is not complicated. “Typically the entire creature measures over 70 metres,” he says. “We buy the materials, then sifus teach everyone how to use them – how to pack the straw, distribute it evenly and then bind with wire.” Ng Kong-kin, a master craftsman, is the village’s fire dragon sifu and oversees construction while his brother Ng Kong-nan trains the 30 or so participants including dancers, drummers and fire lookouts who guide the dragon, pin-cushioned with thousands of glowing incense sticks, through the village’s narrow streets.
The fire dragon ritual has over a century of history and has its origins in a plague that ravaged the village, decimating its livestock. The villagers burned incense in the belief that fire would expunge the plague and, miraculously, it worked. “The people got together and decided that just carrying burning incense around wasn’t quite good enough, something was missing,” says Siu. “Dragons hold a revered place in Chinese culture, so slowly the people of Pok Fu Lam Village began constructing a straw structure in the shape of a dragon, covered in burning incense. Slowly it became what it is today.”
Why does it happen at Mid-Autumn Festival? Siu says it’s because the festival is a time when villagers return home to be with their families, so everyone is present to receive the dragon’s blessings. The ritual, possibly the oldest of its kind, has become a fundamental part of village life. There is no connection to the more famous fire dragon dance in Tai Hang, which is promoted by the Hong Kong Tourism Board, but Siu says they share a similar origin story – and the desire to harness the dragon’s good will is the same.
In Pok Fu Lam, the annual ritual culminates when the fire dragon and its procession gather at Waterfall Bay under the full moon. The solemn ceremony stands in contrast with the raucous celebration that precedes it. The beach is lit by candle flame and all is silent but for the roar of the waterfall and the soft beating of drums which grows in intensity until the entire parade lifts the dragon and runs into the sea with a great clamour. This is how the dragon is returned to heaven.
If dragons, totems of all that is good and just, belong to the heavens then what embodies the opposite? In the world of Chinese cryptids, one is a manifestation of evil: the dragon’s shadowy inverse, the centipede. Hui Ka-hung is circumspect about even mentioning it. “It is an expression of dark, violent martial arts, for people who are…” — he parses his words — “not so legitimate.”
Mention of a centipede was made in a 1937 article published in the Hong Kong Daily Press. The article reports a three mile parade organised by the Chinese Coronation Sub-Committee in celebration of the Coronation of His Majesty King George VI. It describes a “two hundred [foot] fearsome-looking flesh coloured centipede, consisting of thirty-two sections, with green feet and red tail, [manipulated] by a ‘crew’ of about three [sic. possibly three hundred] men.” It is said to have “delighted with its strange awesome movements.” This centipede was the contribution of the Chiuchow (Swatow) Merchants Guild which, according to the article, hoped “to add something new to the usual display of dragons and lions.” One can only guess what their other motivations, if any, might have been.
Triads are the supplicants of this sinister beast. Exceedingly rare if not extinct, this cryptid is intentionally corrupt. Hui speculates that the centipede dance is still performed in secret. “Dragons aren’t aggressive,” he says. “We intentionally shape their mouths as if they’re smiling because they don’t bite. Centipedes are similar to dragons in the sense that they require a retinue of 20 odd people but with knife like pincers dripping with the suggestion of deadly venom they send the message, ‘I will bite. I will kill.’” Hui lowers his voice. “Those who dance the centipede want to show their power and ill intent. They are vicious, strong and aggressive. Normal people don’t like the centipede. It is not pleasant. It is not welcome.”
With these final words, Hui eagerly moves on to more salubrious subjects. Musing on this further, one hopes that, in a dark world, there will always be dragons to watch over us.