By The Loop HK
Despite development happening at breakneck pace in Hong Kong, many of the city’s cultural traditions continue to thrive today.
Just ask Chan Tak-fai, commander-in-chief and organiser of the fire dragon dance in Tai Hang — affectionately known as Fai Gor, or ‘Brother Fai’, within the community. Having been involved with the event since the 1960s, he holds the distinction of being the only individual who is familiar with the construction of the dragon, the dance, as well as the ceremonies conducted during the event. Fai Gor is officially honoured as ‘bearer of the fire dragon dance’ on the National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
As the story goes, the fire dragon dance was created in the 19th century as a way for Tai Hang residents to combat a plague that had consumed what was then a small village. “Things in Tai Hang have been smooth sailing since, but we've made something out of this tradition, and we want it to keep going.”
A sense of community plays a big part in the preservation of this historic event. The area was originally inhabited by the Hakka people, whom Fai Gor — who is Hakka himself — describes as having a strong community spirit. And despite changes in the neighbourhood, that bond between neighbours remains.
“Once people move to Tai Hang and become part of the community, we introduce the fire dragon dance to them and tell them how they can participate,” he says. The event also welcomes participation from former neighbourhood dwellers.
Meanwhile, KC Chan has been involved with the fire dragon dance for over a decade. With his family residing in Tai Hang, he first began participating in the parade as an 8-year-old and later took part in the dance. He now acts as a photographer at the event. Although he doesn’t live in the neighbourhood, he says the festival attracts youngsters – like himself – because of its distinct position as a historically remarkable event. “Tai Hang has evolved into an area that has a lot of unique qualities, and you're seeing this in Hong Kong less and less,” observes Chan. That has inspired people to move to the area, and for them to band together for this once-a-year experience, he says.
“As I continued to help out, I got to know a group of great people. They're doing the same thing as me, and everyone has the same goal,” he adds. “Maybe one person wouldn't be able to succeed in carrying on the tradition, but when you have a group of people together, it's a great thing.”
Participation from the next generation is certainly key to maintaining cultural tradition, says Hong Kong historian and author Chan Tin-kuen. “The continuation of these events depends on whether young people want to carry on what's been done by previous generations,” he says.
In June every year, the Tai Hai Residents’ Welfare Association, which is responsible for putting together the fire dragon dance, starts preparing for the event that takes place during Mid-autumn Festival. Up to 30 newcomers sign up to join the 300-strong fire dragon dance every year, helping out with the dance, religious ceremonies and music. “That's why we need so many people,” Fai Gor, who is a member of the association, explains.
Whether people want to participate also depends on the awareness that surrounds the event — something that Chan Tin-kuen says is integral to their survival. The Tai Hang fire dragon dance is one of four Hong Kong events recognised under the National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, along with the Cheung Chau Bun Festival; the Hungry Ghost Festival organised by the Chiu Chow community; and Tai O’s dragon boat water parade. Their recognition on a national level has inspired more participation, explains Chan Tin-kuen.
Ultimately, the affinity among Tai Hang folks is what continues to drive the event — despite relentless modernisation. “A community is only that when you have residents,” says KC Chan. “Most people love their homes – and if your home has something really special, with over a hundred years of history – then I think people would want to preserve it.”
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