Chinese New Year in Singapore

In ancient China, a mythical beast known only as the Nian would emerge from slumber each spring to ravage the countryside. Crops, livestock and even farmers fell victim to the creature’s monstrous appetite. One year, the villagers decided to fight back. They played drums, cymbals and gongs, and built a model lion out of bamboo and paper to drive away the Nian. It worked, and the tradition has continued ever since. Such is the origin of Chinese New Year’s lion dance.

The lion dance is still an ubiquitous sight in Singapore during Chinese New Year festivities. You can hear and see them everywhere, whether you’re in Chinatown or Clementi. Lion dance troupes perform in offices, shops and temples around the island to ward off bad luck—symbolised by Nian—and usher in prosperity. A Chinese New Year without the gong-gong-chang! of the dance would be unthinkable.

But what is Chinese New Year like from the other side of the lion’s mask? I hopped on the back of Yi Quan Athletic Association’s truck to experience the occasion through the eyes of a lion dance troupe. And nope, no Nians were spotted.

First stop: West Mall

Chinese New Year in Singapore

Yi Quan Athletic Association has been kicking around the local scene for nearly a decade. Owner Lionel Leong says the troupe is busiest during Chinese New Year – this year, the troupe was engaged for more than 150 performances over two weeks.

“I think people are becoming more superstitious,” Lionel said. “Even the bosses of foreign multi-national corporations hire us and are welcoming of this part of our culture. I think that’s a great thing.”

The first performance I attended at Bukit Batok’s West Mall was one of the troupe’s biggest performances. Instead of the usual two lions, Lionel enlisted the help of other troupes and prepared eight lions. As performers wheeled in oversized drums and assembled climbing poles for the lions to mount, a crowd had already begun to gather, cameras primed and waiting.

Chinese New Year in Singapore

62-year-old Mr Loke, a resident of the neighbourhood, was one of the curious spectators—never mind that he had already seen dozens of lion dance performances since his youth. “Oh, back in the ’60s, we didn’t have shopping malls like this one, and we certainly didn’t have air-conditioning,” he recalled. “So they’d close off the road in front of my house and the lion dancers would come down the street to perform cai qing [the climax of the dance] and collect ang pow.”

Reminiscing about the rancour of fire-crackers during the festival, Mr Loke recalled that even after they were banned, there were still designated public areas you could set them off. These spaces became gathering points for residents of the neighbourhood to watch the lion dance. West Mall’s central concourse may not exude the same ambience as the old streets of Singapore, but that doesn’t mean the festive spirit was any less than what Mr Loke referred to as “the good old days”.

At 3.18 pm - an auspicious timing for businesses - Lionel and his posse marched down the shopping centre’s corridor, accompanied by clashing cymbals and booming drums. The crowd surged forward for a better view and a few even reached out to touch or hug the God of Wealth while shouting, “Huat ah! Huat ah!” The lions then received the oranges from the management of the mall, arranged the fruit to form auspicious words on the floor, and then rained the orange peels down on the audience to bring them good luck and fortune. Cue waves of cheers and applause.

With other performances lined up for the day, Lionel and his troops hurried off to the next location.

Tao Tian Keng (斗天宫)

Chinese New Year in Singapore

The celebration at Jurong’s Tao Tian Keng Temple, on the other hand, was a completely different animal. The place of worship is a combination of two smaller temples—Choa Chu Kang’s Tao Tian Keng and Mohamed Sultan Road’s Tua Pek Kong Temple—and is one of the bigger temples in Jurong West. Every Chinese New Year Eve, at the stroke of midnight, hundreds of devotees visit and seek the blessing of the gods.

When I visited Tao Tian Keng, slightly before 10pm, a throng of devotees were already waiting outside the temple. A mini-carnival sat on the field beside it. Stalls sold everything from flowers to small bites. Those who didn’t bring joss sticks formed long lines at the incense stall, making the seller the happiest man of the night. 

Chinese New Year in Singapore

It was a special performance for Yi Quan - the troupe was about to christen two new lions in a ceremony known as Dian Jing, or “dotting the eyes”. Dian Jing is a symbolic act of ‘animating’ the lion before it can perform, and is always an important moment for any troupe as “it means more lions and more members”, beamed Lionel.

After the temple gates opened, the crowd shuffled in. Mrs Lim, a devotee, grasped a bundle of joss sticks in one hand and her elderly mother’s shoulder with the other. “I come with her every year because I don’t want her to get lost,” said Mrs Lim while lighting joss sticks. “She’s older now, but she still wants to do this every year. Having the Tao Tian Keng Temple so close to our house is really good. She doesn’t have to travel very far.”

At 11.30 pm, after the prayers were chanted and the bells tolled, the drums began rumbling. Lionel and his troupe did their last minute checks, got the lions ready and even brought out two dragons for the event—after all, they were in charge of ringing in the New Year.

Chinese New Year in Singapore

As the lions and dragons tangoed to the percussive din, an announcer started the countdown to the new year. The moment it ended, confetti rained down on the costumed dancers and the crowd rushed inside the temple to begin their prayers. I spotted the elder Mrs Lim and asked her if this year’s revelry was comparable to those back in her salad days. “There were a lot more people, a lot more noise,” she sighed. “More like Chinese New Year.”

And then the stage was set for the real highlight of the night. The lions huddled together and arranged on the floor orange peels to form a four-digit number—yes, for the 4D lottery. But nobody knew those numbers were arbitrary. “We just come up with [them] on the spot,” laughed Lionel. “A few years ago, someone bought the numbers that my troupe provided and he won first prize!”

So the Year of the Horse arrived the way any new year had for decades: with the roar of a lion and the pound of a drum. As for Lionel and his Yi Quan Athletic Association, their work has only just begun. Fifteen days of performances await him, with as many as 20 scheduled on a single day. Still, despite the endless phone calls, schedule mix-ups and the occasional tardiness of his troupe members, Lionel remains optimistic.

“Even though lion dancing has evolved to become more like a business rather than an art, the heart of lion dancing and Chinese New Year is always going to be here, no matter what.”

The way of the lion, it’s clear, is far from endangered.


All images courtesy of Yi Quan Athletic Association.


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