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When dragons, unicorns and lions dance

The birthday of the goddess Tin Hau is one of Hong Kong’s biggest celebrations.

Photograph by Laurel Chor
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A Hoklo unicorn dance takes place in front of the Tin Hau Temple in Cha Kwo Ling. Hoklo people, similar to the Hakka people, have lived in Hong Kong for centuries and brought with them their own traditions.
Photograph by Laurel Chor

It’s not every day that dragons, lions and unicorns come to life. They greet each other as they parade down the main street in Cha Kwo Ling, one of the many places in Hong Kong where Tin Hau Festival celebrations take place. The festival celebrates the birth of the goddess of the sea with a clamor of dance, cymbals and drums in what is possibly one of the loudest of all of Hong Kong’s festivals.

Young men run with a long, heavy flagpole during the festival.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a coastal city whose name literally means “Fragrant Harbor”, the significance of Tin Hau to Hong Kong can’t be understated: there are more than 70 temples dedicated to her across the city, and there’s even an entire neighborhood and metro stop named after her.

Parade participants wave flags during the Tin Hau Festival parade in Cha Kwo Ling.

So when her birthday comes around on the 23rd day of the third lunar month (which typically falls in April or May), it’s a big deal, and different celebrations occur all over Hong Kong as communities gather to show off the different dragon, lion and unicorn dances, the performances themselves a display of adoration.

A marching band of bagpipers performs at the same festival.

Cha Kwo Ling is one of Hong Kong’s oldest Hakka villages, according to former village chief Lo Yuet-ping. Its Tin Hau celebration is also one of Hong Kong’s largest. The village sits right next to the sea in Kowloon, on the eastern side of the harbor, and on the day of the festival, it transforms from a sleepy corner to the center of a raucous, colorful gathering of people from all over the city. Fa pau (large floral tributes made of bamboo and paper) are offered to the goddess. Dragon, lion and unicorn dances, which are thought to bring good fortune, happen simultaneously throughout the day: during processions to the village’s Tin Hau Temple, in showcases in front of the temple, and in the final parade.

In the lion and unicorn dances, two performers work together to wear a single costume, with one holding the head of the mythical creature, while another crouches behind, with the body of the creature draped over them both. Together they dance in such a way that the mythical creature comes to life, moving so convincingly that they give the impression that a real wild animal is on the loose. The head of the lion or unicorn often has eyes that can blink and an articulated jaw, which, when artfully controlled by a well-trained dancer, imbue the creature with what seems to be a living, breathing personality.

The performers dance in time with their troupe’s musicians, who don’t play a set rhythm or tune: instead, they carefully watch the performers and time their drums and cymbals with the lion or unicorn’s pace.

An elderly man dances in a “Big Head Buddha” costume to accompany the lion as they enter the Tin Hau Temple in Cha Kwo Ling.

The dragon dance requires the coordination of a far bigger group of people: instead of the costume being worn, as in the lion and unicorn dances, the dragon is held above the dancers’ heads on sticks. Each dancer is in charge of their section of the dragon, and they wave the long, undulating creature above them so that it moves sinuously like a snake through the air. At the front of the dragon, one person carries a stick on the ball that the dragon’s head follows, not unlike a cat trying to catch a toy.

A young man carries the head of a long dragon during the Tin Hau Festival.

Though the lion and dragon dances are well-known, finding audiences around the world thanks to the Chinese diaspora, the unicorn dance is less common. Hakka tradition has its own unique unicorn, or qilin, dance, which dates back centuries.

Like many traditions, those who practice Hakka unicorn dance are generally older, but one of the troupes participating in Cha Kwo Ling’s celebrations is actively trying to reach younger people. Angus Liu, 28, started the Kylin Court troupe in 2011 out of a desire to spread his love for the unicorn dance. He first started to learn the practice when he was only 11 years old.

The head of a Hakka unicorn costume rests in between performances at the Tin Hau Festival in Cha Kwo Ling.

“Hong Kong has a lot of different unicorn teams, mostly in villages, but the people who are learning the dance are getting older and older,” Liu explains. “So I wanted to get younger people involved.”

Now, the troupe’s members range from the 18-month-old child of two dancers to 53-year-old Tiger Yuen, who’s taken the lead to teach his skills to younger members during their weekly training sessions. Most members are in their early twenties and started learning the dance just in the last couple of years, and only half of the team are Hakka.

“I used to be worried the unicorn dance would disappear as only Hakka people have learned it in the past hundreds of years,” Liu says. “But now it’s good that non-Hakka people are learning it too.” He added that he's glad that the government has recognized it as part of Hong Kong's cultural heritage, too.

Tiger Yuen carries a child holding up the head of the Kylin Court troupe’s Hakka unicorn dance costume.

The 18-month-old infant goes to every performance wearing his own miniature troupe uniform: his father, who’s still learning the dance, usually plays an instrument while his mother carries him behind the procession. At the Tin Hau Festival, he sometimes claps his hands along with the music, or bangs on a drum himself. With babies like himself born into the tradition, one can safely hope that the unicorn dance will continue for generations to come.

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