Friday, June 26, 2020

A century of Singapore intangible heritage: The origin of local lion dance and development

This article is published in the heritage book鹤山狮 风雨兼程硕果百年 Lion dance: A century of Singapore intangible heritage, Publisher: Singapore Hok San Association, December 2019. A publication supported by National Heritage Board, Singapore.

During Chinese New Year, many places in Singapore are immersed in thunderous lion dance performances. A key part is “plucking the green” (采青), i.e. getting the treasures from the mouth of a lion at the end of the performance to symbolise good fortune. 

Indeed, there are many Southern lion dance troupes local and abroad such as Malaysia, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand, UK and Canada. Their basic forms are similar. Although Vietnam has its own version of performance, those local Chinese still engage in traditional Southern lion dance. [1]

Yi Yi Tang Lion Dance Troupe

According to sources from Hok San Association, the Yi Yi Tang stele stated that during Qingming and Chongyang festivals, the Singapore Heshan clansmen would perform lion dance at the ancestor tombs to symbolise brotherhood and loyalty. [2]

The stele made reference to another document from “Tongyi She” (同义社) dated Guangxu 14 year, i.e. year 1888. It may be deduced that Heshan lion dance had been brought to Singapore back then.

For “Tongyi She”, this association was established during Qing dynasty. In 1924, the association founded Tongyi School at today’s Cholon, Ho Chi Minh City. It formally registered as Hok San Community Guild at Cholon in 1943.[3]

Hong Kong Street near Singapore River was where the early Cantonese immigrants set up their businesses to trade with China and Hong Kong. In the early 20th century, some coolies from Heshan (鹤山) prefecture of Guangdong province, China, congregated around Hong Kong Street to practice lion dance and martial arts.  This led to the establishment of Yi Yi Tang Lion Dance Troupe. The lion was invited to perform at Kwong Wai Siew Peck San Theng (广惠肇碧山亭), the Cantonese cemetery, during Qingming and Chongyang festivals as a form of ancestor worship. [4]

The lion dance troupe "Yi Yi Tang Lion Dance Troupe" was formed in 1920. It evolved into the forming of Singapore Hok San Association (鹤山会馆) in 1939. The lion dance troupe was subsumed under the Association. [5] 

(Hong Kong Street near Singapore River was where the early Cantonese immigrants set up their businesses to trade with China and Hong Kong.)

Yi Yi Tang Lion Dance Troupe is recognised as the first lion dance troupe in Singapore. In 1939, the second official lion dance troupe, the Kong Chow Wui Koon (冈州会馆) Lion Dance Troupe, was established. Hok San Association and Kong Chow Wui Koon are formed by Cantonese clansmen. Historically, Hok San (Heshan) was part of Kong Chow (Gangzhou) but separated as a new prefecture during Qing Dynasty.

After the Japanese occupation period, other lion dance troupes, regardless of dialects, were officially formed. The lion dance troupes help members of the group to build coherent teamwork and improve bonding among each other. 

Having said that, in 1951 when Singapore was conferred city status and held a celebration parade, only 6 lion dance troupes participated of which Hok San Association was one of them. [6]

Apparently, lion dance also attracted English newspaper reporters. For example The Singapore Free Press described that “a lion ran loose in the Happy World stadium. To the background music of a Chinese brass band, the lion danced fiercely and attacked an old priest. This was one of the many scenes in a lion dance display staged by the Singapore Nanyang Hok San Association last night in aid of the Singapore Anti-tuberculosis Association. [7]

In its heyday, The Hok San lion was invited to perform in front of the local TV audience. In 1968, the Hok San lion recorded the 45 minute stage drama “Hero and lion” in the studio of the Radio and Television Singapura (today’s Mediacorp) . 

(The hero of the stage drama “Hero and lion” performed in the studio of the Radio and Television Singapura.)

Tracing the legacy of lion dance

The lion dance is a pugilistic performance dating back to more than 1,500 years. During the Southern Song Dynasty about 1,000 years ago, the lion dance was known as the Northern Lion and commonly performed in festivals. The Southern Lion was developed much later in the Guangdong province. [8]

Singapore’s lion dance was originated from Southern provinces of China, in particular Foshan and Heshan. 

The Foshan lion has a high forehead, curved lips and a very sharp horn. The main traits of the Foshan lion dance are its attention to making larger strides in movement and strength in posture. 

Heshan lion is known for its richness of expression, unique footwork modelled after the cats and vigorous drumming style. The forehead of the lion head is lower. Its horn rounded and has a duck beak mouth with flat lips. The body of the lion is also explicitly more colourful. [9]

Distinguishing the various lions

Southern Lion also called Nanshi (南狮) and Xingshi (醒狮). The word 醒(xing)carries the meaning of awakened and is deemed auspicious. [10] Heavy eyebrows, bulging eyes, big nose, big mouth and single horn are the common characteristics of Southern Lion. 

The lion heads have two unique features based on shape and colour.  

For shape, the lion heads can be divided into the Foshan lion (佛山獅) and the Heshan lion (鹤山獅). 

For colour, the lion heads are distinguished by yellow (刘备, Liubei), red (关羽, Guanyu), black (张飞, Zhangfei). In the recent years, we have seen blue-white (马超, Machao) and green (赵云, Zhaoyun). They are based on the classic literary text Romance of Three Kingdoms (三国演义).  The values of brotherhood and loyalty are thus embedded into the lions. 

(Some of the lion heads displayed in Kong Chow Wui Koon Cultural Centre.)

‘Dotting the eyes’ (点睛) of the lion is a vital process as it symbolises giving life to the lion before it can perform. A person of significant social standing would usually be invited to dot the lion eyes to signify bright and clear vision. [11]

Chin Woo Athletic Association (精武体育会)formed the Northern Lion Dance Troupe in 1947. The Northern Lion is also called Beishi (北狮) which resemble closely to stone lions that stand in front of Chinese temples or traditional Chinese buildings. However, the Northern lion is less popular in Singapore and probably only confined to Chin Woo Athletic Association. [12]

An open area named “精武体育会操场” next to Pinnacle on Neil Road was belonged to Chin Woo Athletic Association. The Chin Woo lion dance troupes used to practice there between 1940s and 1970s. 

(The Chin Woo lion dance troupes used to practice at the open field next to today’s Pinnacle on Neil Road.)

Lion dance performance process

Lion dance performances are accompanied by drums, gongs and cymbals. Normally a performance group consists of about 8 to 10 people: 2 of them are lion dance performers. The accompanying percussive instrument players consist of 6 to 8 people.

Every movement of the lion has a specific musical rhythm. The music follows the moves of the lion. The drum follows the lion, and the cymbals and the gongs follow the drum. Throughout the performance, the lion will, based on the study of actual lion’s behaviour, mimic the moods and physical gestures which combine art and kungfu moves. 

The lion is played by two persons dressed in the lion costume. The Shitou (狮头, front performer) assumes the front body and controls the lion’s head, eye lids, ears and the mouth. The Shiwei (狮尾,back performer) arches forward to form the back of the lion and controls its tail.

The lion dance will begin when the percussive instruments are struck. The lion will enter the centre of the stage with strong rhythm and greet the audience, or ancestor or gods on altar (if playing at temple or within clan premises) with three bows. 

The performance usually takes about 15 minutes. Obstacles are laid by the party that has invited the lion dance troupe to perform. The lion has to compel to overcome these obstacles to finally acquire the “treasures”. 

In the process, the lion will perform eight movements - drunkenness, sleep, wakefulness, suspicion, anger, fright, happiness and merrymaking. Each movement is expressed by a different rhythm. 

The lion dance performance will end with three bows to the audience or the altar.

Plucking the green

 “Plucking the green” is a special lion dance routine performed on joyous occasions like Chinese New Year, new business launch and mid-Autumn festival. 

(The Hok San lion performing plucking the green during Chinese New Year.) 

Normally after the eight movements, the lion would pluck the green vegetable, swallow and throw them out. 

When performing during Chinese New Year in recent years, the lion would perform additional tasks such as peel open the oranges and leave a display of orange petals for audience to decipher for lucky 4D numbers. 

In the past, some customers would arrange for the lion to peel open a pomelo, pick up crabs, snakes or fish from a bowl. [13] Some secret societies would lay special array to test the lions.

Lion dance troupes usually have their main source of income in the form of red packets during “plucking the green”. Other incomes are commonly come from invited performances. The actual amounts are agreed beforehand with the customers. Some troupes are able to generate about $30,000 to $40,000 during Chinese New Year period. This amount is enough to cover rental, utility bills and travel expenses for that year. [14]

The origin of plucking the green can be traced back to the anti-Qing movement (反清). The phonetic similarity between “plucking the green” (采青) and “trampling the Qing” (踩清) were used to belittle the Qing government. Likewise, “swallowing the green” (吞青) signifies “overthrowing the Qing Dynasty” (吞清), and the routine of “throwing out the green” (吐青) is for “dissolving the Qing government”(吐清). 

As lion dance passes down over the generations, other elements such as fortune, wealth and prosperity were included in the plucking green themes, leading to the rich traditional culture today. [15]

People involved in lion dance in Singapore today

There are about 300 lion dance troupes registered as affiliated members with the Singapore Wushu Dragon & Lion Dance Federation but not all are active. [16]

It is estimated that there are about 10,000 people involved in lion dance. [17] Nevertheless, some of the performers are representing multiple lion dance troupes and not all are active. 

The lion dance circle in Singapore is closely-knitted and with strong networks between troupes. Troupes usually help each other out when there are manpower shortages. For example, the members of Stamford Dragon Lion Arts and Cultural Troupe (史丹福龙狮文化艺术团) are mainly students or national service personnel. Because of their other commitments, when come to important performances, the troupe would combine with another lion dance troupe to complement each other. The average age for the troupe has also been raised from 25 years old several years ago to 30. [18] This is typical among the lion dance troupes in Singapore.

New Southern lion dance troupes were formed from time to time. For example, Xinyang Athletic Association which formed in 2007 was started out as members of Nanyang Junior College Pugilistics Society and then Nanyang Junior College Alumni Dragon and Lion Dance Troupe. [19] Kuan San Tang Dragon and Lion Dance Troupe were set up in 1991 by more than ten teenagers who had great passion for this performance arts. [20] Lion dance is growing strongly as compared to before and immediately after the Japanese occupation period where there were only three officially registered lion dance troupes in Singapore: Hok San Association, Kong Chow Wui Koon, and Chin Woo Athletic Association. 

As physical strength and endurance are quite demanding for lion dance, the active practitioners are mainly in the range of 18 to 60 years old. The older ones would usually assume coaching role.

Learning to perform lion dance

Lion dance performances are usually coached by masters who have acquired sufficient skill, experience and knowledge through years of practice. The masters are assisted by their senior disciples. The learners are generally students, national servicemen and young male and female adults who have strong interest in lion dance and martial arts.

Performing lion dance requires physical ability and kungfu skill. It is pertinent for the practitioners to have already learned martial arts.

Lion dance practices usually carried out at the troupe vicinity, once a week at night during weekends so that they would not conflict with school and work. The frequency would increase before important performances and competitions. 

(Hok San lion dance training on Sunday.)

During normal training sessions, members get to learn about musical instruments, lion movement and coordination between music and movement. [21] They may choose their specialty after acquiring the basic skills. 

The hierarchy for the lion dance troupes is simple. Typically, the lion dance master is the leader sits at the top of the hierarchy. Under the master, there are seniors, juniors and those who are playing drums and gongs. 

If the troupe belongs to an organisation such as clan association or temple, the troupe will have to report to the higher echelon, i.e. the board of directors of the organisation. 

The evolution of lion dance performances

Lion dance performers are from different Chinese ethnicities with some performers from other races. Hok San Association and Kong Chow Wui Koon attracted Indians in age 20s to join their lion dance troupes. JingYang Lion Dance Troupe attracted Malays in their 20s.

Lion dance techniques are increasingly pushing the boundaries of height through high poles and freeform style. By pushing the boundaries, lion dance appears to become more attractive to the youth and has spread to China and Vietnam. In 2007, Malaysia government announced high pole lion dance as national heritage which attracted other races into this special form of martial arts. Currently, Malaysia is preparing to apply for UNESCO intangible heritage. [22]

However, local traditional lion dance troupes prefer to hold on to the inherent values embedded in the dance and would not move along the direction of acrobatic lion dance which is deemed as high risk and may cause severe injury.

The traditional lion dance routine had props and sets which was based on cave and crossings. These props and sets became mountains and gigantic bridges. In recent years, lion dance training has begun to incorporate video technology to complement the traditional method of demonstration and verbal dictation. The lion dance troupes also leverage on social media, websites, blogs and Facebook to broadcast their activities.

Other challenges

The situation of insufficient lion troupe members to meet the Chinese New Year demand was apparent in the last few years but this should be deemed as a happy problem. In 2015, only 194 out of about 300 lion troupes applied for plucking the green license due to manpower shortages. This was a drop of about 5% as compared to the previous years. [23]  Nam Sieng Dragon and Lion Dance Activity Centre invited lion dance performers from Vietnam to help out but they were stopped from entering Singapore by the immigrant custom at Changi Airport due to Ministry of Manpower’s policy. [24] 

Some Singaporeans have perception that lion dance troupes are linked with secret society. At least one of the troupes (Ding Sheng Lion and Dragon Dance Troupe as reported in newspaper) was battling with this concern. This is probably due to some lion dance performers resembled with “Ah Beng” style and with tattoos on their bodies. For those lion dance troupes which are affected by “tattoos image”, the performers are advised to put on arm sleeves. The masters also serve the role of educating their disciples. [25] Although this may impact on the general image of the lion dance troupes, there is no adverse trend affecting the development of local lion dance for now. 


1. 2013年越南胡志明市第五郡华人舞狮表演,You tube,, accessed 11 January 2017.

2. 《新加坡鹤山会馆二零零六年纪念特刊》,新加坡鹤山会馆出版,p. 47.

3. “旅越鹤山同乡会概况”,《新加坡鹤山同乡会十周年纪念特刊》,新加坡南洋鹤山同乡会,31 December 1949,p.31。

4. 《新加坡鹤山会馆二零零六年纪念特刊》,新加坡鹤山会馆出版,p. 47.

5. 霍炳权主编,《新加坡鹤山会馆二零一五年纪念特刊》,新加坡鹤山会馆出版,pp. 25-27.

6. “一舞龙队六舞狮队花车二百余架”,《南洋商报》19 September 1951, p.5.

7. The Singapore Free Press, 3 October 1951, p.8.

8. “Lion dance”, From Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia,,accessed 5 January 2017.

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11. “Lion Dance”, Singapore Infopedia: an electronic encyclopaedia on Singapore’s history, culture, people and events, , accessed 11 January 2017.

12. 关于新加坡精武体育会,, accessed 7 January 2017.

13. “Lion Dance”, Singapore Infopedia: an electronic encyclopaedia on Singapore’s history, culture, people and events,,  accessed 11 January 2017.

14. Fabian Koh, “Roaring interest in lion dance”, Straits Times 20 November 2016,, accessed 7 January 2017.

15. “Lion & Dragon Dance Curriculum”,,  assessed 22 April 2019.

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18. 薛淑慧,“年初四开工大吉:采青预约大增 应接不暇”, 11 February 2016, accessed 10 January 2017.

19. About Xinyang & Yongyang Athletic Association,,  accessed 7 January 2017.

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22. “大马高桩舞狮申世遗 张盛闻促响应百万签名活动”,星洲日报 2017年10月10日,, accessed 26 April 2019.

23. “农历新年醒狮团员人数不足 采青工作减少”, 狮城6点半 2 February 2015,8频道, accessed 12 January 2017.

24. 李蕙心,“人力部拒发特别准证: 培养本地采青人员 舞狮团不能找外援”, 《联合早报》 20 January 2016.

25. Fabian Koh, “Roaring interest in lion dance”, Straits Times 20 November 2016,, accessed 7 January 2017.

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