Hong Kong’s tiny Tai Hang district is usually one of the city’s quietest quarters. But every year during Mid-Autumn Festival—a mythological holiday celebrating the moon and harvest—the neighborhood comes alive with thumping drums, swirling incense, and a 67-foot-long dancing dragon.
Inscribed to China’s national list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2011, the Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance began in 1880, back when the now-inland neighborhood (due to land reclamation) was still a fishing village on the coast. According to legend, a plague besieged the Hakka community and a soothsayer suggested the villagers perform a dragon dance with firecrackers and incense to dispel the contagion. To this day, the dragon dance continues to be a highlight of Mid-Autumn Festival.
The 2017 parade takes place from October 3-6, (the eighth Lunar month on the Chinese calendar). Though it’s traditionally a three-day affair, the festival will be extended to four days to mark Hong Kong’s 20th anniversary as a Special Administrative Region of China.
Dragon dance commander-in-chief Chan Tak-fai, who has been officiating the event for the past 20 years, first got involved as a child. “I grew up watching all the elder makers—there were three on Sun Chun Street where I lived—create the fire dragon every year. I was able to learn and later teach young Tai Hangers,” says Tak-fai, now 70. “Back then, we always gathered in the street as there was no air-conditioning and it was cooler [outside]. That created a great sense of community.”
To prepare for the annual festival, the residents craft a new dragon each year. During a two-day process, they weave together hemp rope, pearl straw, and bamboo to form the body, then lace the spine with thousands of incense sticks. Even with poles attached to the underbelly, it’s not easy to handle the 220-pound dragon. The dance requires 300 Tai Hang residents—both current and former—to carry the creature’s 32 sections.
Tak-fai leads two grand rehearsals—each about two to three hours—to ensure newcomers know the traditional moves and techniques. There’s a team dedicated to each part: the body (which is lighter and easier to handle), the tail (requiring speed and agility), and the head (strength and endurance). Built on a rattan frame with metal sheets for a tongue, the massive head is the heaviest part of the dragon, at 105 pounds.
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Responsible for carrying the head, Angus Wong Ho-kit has been involved in the dance for the past 20 years. “Many of my friends who first joined it with me stopped going, but not me,” says Wong, now 32. “I’m getting more and more involved—I’ve met an elder dragon maker who encourages me to learn the craft. Now I’m involved in various components of the tradition and not just the performances.”
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Before the creature soars through the streets, Chan performs several Hakka rituals at the 150-year-old Lin Fa Temple in Tai Hang, such as hanging red cloths in homage to the dragon. Around 8 p.m., the dance begins when the elders light the incense in the animal’s eyes. With its head ablaze, the dragon chases two “pearls”—essentially incense bouquets carried by young dancers. A blur of complicated choreography, these dandelion-like orbs of light lead the procession on its path along Wun Sha, King, and Sun Chun Streets. For the next two hours, thousands of spectators cheer on the powerful beast as it dips and twists through the neighborhood.
“It is considered to be good luck and good health to pass under the dancing dragon,” Wong says. “[When I was young] I remember my mom would always hold my sister’s and my hands to dive under the dragon together every year.”