JUST how lucrative being in a lion dance troupe is can best be summed up by the number of troupes currently found nationwide.
Chong Yen Heng, secretary-general of the Heng Kok Lion Dance troupe and general manager of Dong Hwa Dragon and Lion Manufacturing Sdn Bhd says, “There are some 3,000 lion dance troupes in the country. Let’s say each one were to charge a nominal fee of RM300 per performance based on a minimal schedule of 10 shows a day over a period of 10 days, we are already looking at a market worth RM90mil.
“This is just a rough estimate based on conservative figures, but it is a reflection of how big the business of lion dancing can get,” says Chong, 43, of Pandan Perdana in Kuala Lumpur.
Current rates in smaller towns can start at RM350, while fees in cities begin at RM500.
Troupes that infuse acrobatic elements, such as performing on poles and stilts can charge up to RM3,000.
Famous troupes with world championship titles can come in with starting quotes of between RM5,000 and RM15,000, depending on length of the performance and the number of stilts requested by the organiser. For mall appearances, prices can start from RM3,000.
Compared to the good old days, fees for lion dancing have risen a great deal.
Chiew Tuck Keong, 53, the lion dance coach of the Chee Fee Tai-Chi Choy Lee Fat Association in Ipoh, Perak says the 1970s often saw troupes receiving ang pow of as little as RM20 to RM65 during their rounds in the region’s new villages.
“In the old days, when I was around 10, as long as someone hung a bunch of lettuce over their doorway, it was seen as an invitation. We didn’t know how much we’d get as the amount in the ang pow was only revealed after the performance. Over time, we could tell who the generous ones were, but it didn’t feel right to ignore those who could not give as much as it would be very unlucky for the house or business owner if a troupe were to ignore an invitation. New villagers are a close knit community, so we usually complied. And our main intention was to have fun, not make money,” says Chiew.
But modernisation has changed things.
“When I was a boy, I was happy enough to get RM5. Now, if I gave that kind of fee, no one would come!” says Chong who started learning the footwork 30 years ago.
Such things can’t be helped, says the bachelor who also runs a shop manufacturing and supplying lion and dragon heads.
“In Ipoh, you can still book a troupe during the Chinese New Year season for between RM250 and RM350. In Kuala Lumpur, it’s double that amount,” says Chong.
Renting a three-tonne lorry to carry performers and props will cost the troupe at least RM250 or more depending on distance. A troupe also has to consider wages and allowance for 12 to 14 dancers and musicians.
“The performers, usually young boys, are used to the metropolitan lifestyle. So, they will expect a certain amount. Otherwise, it’s no go,” says Chong.
Brian Lee, a performer who has worked with the Heng Kok troupe for 10 years, reveals what keeps dancers loyal to a troupe.
“First, it’s the treatment accorded by the master. Second, comes the type of social activities the association can offer. Though I do not wish to reveal the amount I make as a lion dancer, I can safely say that after each Chinese New Year season, I have enough for a mobile phone upgrade,” says the 31-year-old assistant manager for an elevator and escalator company.
Without a doubt it is hard earned money. Performers begin training as early as age 10 and while the basic footwork can be learnt within a couple of months, it can take up to three years to master the more acrobatic moves required to thrill a crowd.
“One troupe in Muar, Johor that takes part in world-class competitions requires their dancers to train three hours daily, especially when they have to perform on stilts as they have to build endurance and stamina, factors related directly to safety,” says Chong.
For less acrobatic performances, dancers have to train at least three times a week for two hours per session as peak seasons can see a troupe performing 15 shows a day.
Diamond Ho, 35, a school van driver by day who started training at age 10, says the lion dance masters of the past were a tough lot who strengthened the knees of their young charges by making them do the “horse stance” while a joss stick burned between their legs.
Methods have since changed, assures Lee.
“Today, the masters prefer to observe new students to see where their talents lie,” he says.
Chiew who makes a living as a building contractor, says the biggest challenge faced by the old masters is keeping tradition alive.
“Young people today are very different. Before, we had to wait for the masters. Now, the masters have to wait for the students.
“The rise of computer games also means youngsters lead a more sedentary life and are less fit. Often, I see students panting after only the second round of training,” says Chiew.
As lion dancing is an integral part of Chinese tradition, it has created a robust market for those involved in it.
Chong of Dong Hwa Dragon and Lion Manufacturing, says the company can see annual sales of RM600,000 from making lion and dragon heads and supplying troupes with uniforms and musical instruments. He says orders for lion heads alone can reach 200 a year.
Chong also sells his products to Singapore, New Zealand, the UK and the US. The company’s proudest project to date is the construction of a lion head the size of the cabin of a heavy truck for Oloiya, a dried meat company in KL. Bringing it to life required 15 dancers for the head alone and 30 more for the train.
Chong says orders for a lion or dragon head are usually placed by business owners who will pay between RM2,000 and RM4,000 for a completed head.
It is symbol of good luck for a business owner to “give life” to a lion head by dotting its forehead with red paint. Uniform orders are usually paid for by sponsoring companies who will have their names printed on the back of T-shirts. Prices for a pair of trousers, complete with faux fur, range from RM40 to RM80. Shoes are usually provided by ordering parties and labour charges for embellishment are RM50 per pair.
Chong and Chiew are quick to stress the motivational force behind this age-old tradition is not entirely monetary gain.
“At the end of the day, it is about preserving culture. In the old days, lion dancing was considered an extra-curricular activity for the kung fu academies,” says Chiew the lion dance trainer, who also gives martial arts lessons thrice weekly at his association’s headquarters Jalan Queen in Ipoh.
“The main goal is to teach the younger generation the importance of teamwork, camaraderie and hard work. This is the true driving force that has kept lion dancing alive, not money,” says Chiew.
Chiew, who won a gold cup in the senior category of the World Choy Lee Fatt Invitational Tournament in China last year, reports his troupe earns some RM40,000 a year from lion dancing. In addition to paying salaries, a certain percentage also goes to the association’s treasury box. Some three years ago, funds went towards the construction of a new RM100,000 building to replace a single- storey village house bought by the association members in 1983.