How shy lion dancer whose spirit roars when performing became the subject of a new film

How shy lion dancer whose spirit roars when performing became the subject of a new film Kelvin Chan performs a lion dance in a still from Heart of the Lion, a new documentary from director Rosanna Lee. Photo: Heart of the Lion
  • Kelvin Chan, who learned lion dancing in the UK before honing his skills in Hong Kong, will appear in the 2025 documentary Heart of the Lion

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Kelvin Chan is visibly shy and introverted in person, his eyes darting back and forth whenever he feels nervous.

But that all changes the moment the Britain-born Chinese steps into his lion dance uniform and pulls a papier-mAche lion head over his own.

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Stepping out in front of the crowd, his eyes fill with focus and determination. Before long, he is fervently dancing away to the beat of drums and cymbals, the spirit of the lion having taken over his mind and body.

For Chan, lion dance has always been an integral part of his life. "Growing up, I was really confused when people didn't know what lion dance was," he says.

He was introduced to the art form by his Cantonese father - who learned lion dance in Hong Kong - at the age of four. At the time, Chan was still too young to be able to carry a full-size lion head, so he learned with his own smaller version. He would also play instruments to help out his father during his performances at celebrations in London.

During his early teens, Chan began properly practising lion dance under his father as part of the Tang Cho Tak Pak Mei Kung Fu Association, a martial arts school in London founded by master Tang Cho-tak.

Because the fundamental movements of lion dance are rooted in Chinese martial arts, lion dancers must be trained accordingly before they start to perform. At Tang's school, Chan learned pak mei ("white eyebrow"), a style of kung fu that originated in southern China about four centuries ago.

"It just became a real passion," he says. "From lion dance, I could see a whole other world, maybe two or three generations before: how they used to think, what kind of superstitions they had ... It's become my gateway to learn more about my cultural heritage, and just life as a whole."

Chan is now the subject of an upcoming documentary called Heart of the Lion, which will be shown in Hong Kong in early 2025.

The film's director, London-based Rosanna Lee, also comes from a family with a martial arts background. She decided to make a film about lion dance at the end of 2022, after months of watching her brother practise martial arts during the Covid-19 pandemic. But instead of focusing on just the performance, she wanted to delve into the stories behind lion dance.

"There was so much to tell, in terms of history, sense of heritage and sense of identity," she recalls thinking.

She says that many British-Chinese who migrated from Hong Kong to the UK in the 1960s and '70s joined lion dance groups, mostly to feel a sense of belonging.

Given her own identity as a second-generation immigrant, she also wanted to explore why there seemed to be a new wave of interest in martial arts in the UK, and examine how lion dance, especially for British-Chinese people, was intertwined with topics of identity, belonging and community.

"Culturally it was having a revival and people were seeing it as a source of connection to their own history and their heritage. [For] second-generation immigrants, there is a common need and desire - and maybe compulsion - to be an archaeologist and excavate your own personal history, because people of my dad's generation just don't talk about their lives," she says.

"I was [also] aware that a lot of the elders and the sifus [masters] of the original lion dance groups have retired, passed away or moved back to Hong Kong. So there is this sense of urgency around it and feeling like, especially in Britain, that it's a dying art or it's fading out."

The practice of lion dance is said to date back thousands of years. According to one origin legend, a fierce monster named Nian that preyed on children in a village was once scared away by a lion. Nian vowed to return, but the lion left, so instead the villagers created their own makeshift one, which managed to keep Nian away.

Lion dance has since become a traditional art form that is performed every year - most frequently during Lunar New Year, but also at weddings, business openings and even funerals - to ward off evil and bring good fortune.

Lee recalls that within minutes of meeting Chan he had relayed various rituals and details, including the spiritual connections in lion dance, how the gods are invited into the lion dance costume through an eye-dotting ceremony, and how the head has to be properly burned and sent back to the heavens whenever they are retired.

"It was interesting to me to see how he's so articulate in his dancing and his fluency in movement, whereas expressing himself in other ways, he finds more difficult," Lee says. "Lion dance gave him a sense of creativity."

She adds it was important that part of the documentary was shot in Hong Kong.

"Kelvin goes back every year to Hong Kong, almost like a pilgrimage, to connect with the spiritual side of lion dance, and to strengthen, focus, refine and finesse his lion dancing."

Lee and her team captured footage of Chan at an ancestral hall in Fanling, in Hong Kong's New Territories, where master Tang - who has relocated back to the city - instructed Chan on martial arts technique.

They also went to Ha Tsuen in Yuen Long, also in the New Territories, where Chan's father lived, and met with members of the Pun Bing Kwang Martial Arts & Athletic Association, the martial arts group with which Chan's father used to train.

The type of kung fu that this group practises - hung kuen - is stylistically very different than the pak mei he trains in in London, Chan says. While hung kuen emphasises strong stances, the pak mei he learns in London concentrates more on short bursts of power. Because different martial arts groups practise different styles, lion dance styles can also differ drastically, he adds.

Returning to Hong Kong every year is especially meaningful for Chan because the city is where his lion dancing reached another level. He is even considering a permanent move to Hong Kong so that he can further his skills, a dilemma that the documentary explores.

"Physically, I learned how to lion dance in London," Chan says. "But it was in Hong Kong, through exploring the culture here in the native land where lion dance and martial arts came from, [that] I learned to lion dance spiritually."

Both Lee and Chan hope that Heart of the Lion will show audiences that lion dance is not just a performance but an art form that lies at a crossroads between history, culture, religion and spirituality.

"In Hong Kong, obviously everyone knows what lion dance is," Chan says. "But does everyone really understand the tradition, the culture around it? Not really. I just want to show people within the Chinese community that this is a beautiful cultural art that we have.

"Don't let this be lost. This is our culture."

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

Copyright (c) 2024. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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