If Siow Ho Phiew had his way, acrobatic lion dance, a centuries-old tradition dating back to the Han Dynasty (206BC – 220AD), will be a sport competed at the Olympics one day. Addressed as Sifu Siow respectfully, he is no stranger to buckling convention, particularly when it comes to lion dancing.
Born into a farming family in Pulau Ketam, Selangor 61 years ago, Siow took up lion dancing at the age of 21, some three years after he started learning Shaolin kung fu. Even when Siow had achieved the status of kung fu master at the age of only 24, he seemed destined to follow in the footsteps of his parents, working at their family farm.
An unfortunate incident at the age of 30, however, turned things around drastically and quickly for Siow. “One day, I was stung by a swarm of wild bees, so severe that I was hospitalised. I realised then that farming wasn’t the life that I wanted. I made the decision there and then to focus full time on lion dancing, something which I have been passionate about,” he said. In fact, Siow’s deep involvement in lion dancing had begun two years earlier when he organised the first National Lion Dance Championship.
With time on his hands, Siow decided to figure out how to improve on the lion heads that had thus far been imported from China. Made from bamboo, they did not last long, and, according to Siow, had no visual appeal. Nonetheless, Siow took one apart to figure out the mechanism of the head. “The bamboo used in China-made lion heads snaps easily and the sharp ends may cause injury to the lion dancers. I replaced bamboo with rattan, which is lighter and more pliable, secured onto an aluminium base frame, thus it lasts longer,” explained Siow.
With annual national lion dance competitions organised by Siow, lion dance practitioners all over the country were able to exchange notes on how the lion head could be further improved upon.
Although Siow first made lion heads for the use of his own troupe, he soon received orders from other troupes around the country, having seen how striking his lion heads looked, yet were durable. To cater to the demand for his hand-made lion heads, Siow had to relocate from PJ Old Town to the current premises in Shah Alam, Selangor.
Besides replacing bamboo with rattan and using an aluminium frame rather than a bamboo frame, Siow also improvised the other parts of the lion head. “The two layers of paper are lined by gauze underneath so that they do not tear easily. In addition, after colourful, intricate designs have been painted on the head, it is coated with a layer of lacquer to protect the poster colour and paper against moisture and weather elements,” he said.
While the making of the lion head may look like a complex task, it actually takes an average of only eight days to complete one set, including its body. This is because Siow is very systematic – all the parts are numbered according to sequence and every point of the frame is marked so that his ten artisans automatically know which part goes where.
Today, Siow’s company, Wan Seng Hang Dragon & Lion Arts, produces about 500 lion units and 20 dragon sets per year to customers all over the world. Each set is priced from RM2,000 to RM3,000, depending on requirement and complexity. The lions are primarily of the Southern styles, the Fut San and Hok San, which are more popular compared to the Northern lion. The lion heads look extremely colourful; their combination of colours and designs actually represent six legendary Chinese figures during the Three Kingdoms period: Liu Bei, Guan Gong, Zhang Fei, Zhao Zi Long, Huang Zhong and Ma Chao.
Meanwhile, Siow’s passion for the lion dance does not stop at merely producing lion sets. Although he has personally stopped participating in acrobatic lion dance competitions in 1983, he continues to train lion dance troupes, at no cost. Award-winning troupes such as Muar’s Kun Seng Keng, Selangor’s Kuan Loke, and uncountable Hong Teck divisions have undergone training under Siow, whose expertise is also much sought after overseas both as a coach and judge.
“Acrobatic lion dance transcends race and religion. It may have started off as part of Chinese culture to ward off evil spirits during the New Year but over the decades, it has evolved into an art genre. To me, the lion dance is more than an art form. It is a sport which can be practised and competed by anyone, regardless of gender or background. In fact, all lion dance practitioners are encouraged to embrace the eight human virtues of loyalty, truthfulness, perseverance, courage, wisdom, sincerity, harmony and respect,” he added.
Note: An edited version of this article [Inside the lion’s head] was published on 26th November, 2016 in the now-defunct The Malay Mail.