Siow and his team of artisans provide the ‘faces’ of lion dance

THE spectacular lion dance with its thunderous clashing music and animated martial arts-inspired movements is a must every Chinese New Year.

The intricate lion heads are brought to life in the industrial area of Subang 2 at the Wan Seng Hang (WSH) Dragon & Lion Arts workshop.

The man behind it is Master Siow Ho Phiew, a seminal figure in the world of lion dancing, who has been producing lion heads in Malaysia since 1986.

Tham Hock Peng making outline on the lion head for the resin sticker to be pasted on (CNY 2014 Lion Dance Head Making Steps)
Tham Hock Peng making the outline on the lion head for the resin sticker to be pasted on.

The team at WSH can produce around 500 lion heads per year with some being exported to Asia and around the world.

WSH produces two styles of southern lion heads, the Fut San and Hok San, with both originating from Guangdong province,

Both varieties can be differentiated by the shape of the horn and mouth, and overall stance of the head.

Siow shares that traditionally, certain combinations of colour and design were created as a tribute to famous Chinese historical figures during the Three Kingdoms Period such as the generals Liu Bei, Kwan Kung, Zhang Fei and Zhao Zi Long.

While the lion head design is attributed to legend and myth, Siow does not believe in superstition.

Wong Sion Loong forming the basic shape of the head. The entire process is done by hand. Rattan is used to form the skeletal structure of the head as it is unlikely to break and injure the operator of the head due to its pliability (CNY 2014 Lion Dance Head Making Steps)
Wong Sion Loong forming the basic shape of the head. The entire process is done by hand. Rattan is used to form the skeletal structure of the head as it is unlikely to break and injure the operator due to its pliability.

The only ceremony associated with the initiation of the lion is Dim Jing, and that is left to the customer, said Siow.

Depending on the level of complexity and customer’s requirements, a lion head can take between seven and 10 days to build or even longer, especially if it is to be used in competition.

Master Siow Ho Phiew showing off a completed lion-head . (CNY 2014 Lion Dance Head Making Steps)
Siow in his workshop in Subang 2 with some of the completed lion heads.

The process begins by feeding rattan stems through a special cutting tool to produce slimmer pieces that are marked for an assembler to bend and secure with adhesive tape, forming the basic shape of the lion head, he explained.

“Each piece of rattan used in the frame is like a bone and has its own special name” he added.

Rattan as a material is favoured over the traditional bamboo-made lion heads due to its lightness and pliability as it does not snap like bamboo, putting the lion head operator at risk of injury, he said.

The finishing touches are made by Siow Hooi Boon after the paint and subsequent lacquer layers are applied. The lacquer also serves as a protective layer for the paint and guard against moisture. The last parts to go on are the eyelids,
Hooi Boon making finishing touches after the paint and subsequent lacquer layers are applied. The lacquer serves as a protective layer for the paint and guards against moisture. The last parts to go on are the eyelids, ‘fur’ and the pom- poms beside the nose.

Once the basic shape is completed and the lion horn is attached, layers of bamboo paper and gauze are applied to the frame to strengthen it, followed by a third layer of resin that becomes the base decorative layer.

Gray Tan, who has been with Siow for eight years, paints the lion head with specially-ordered poster colours and many types of brushes including those used in Chinese calligraphy.

He is also responsible for conceptualising and executing the visual motifs found on the lion heads.

“Sometimes customers indicate what colours they would like to use or leave it to us to come up with a design.” he said.

Master Siow's disciple Gray Tan concentrating with the brush while applying paint to the lion's head. (CNY 2014 Lion Dance Head Making Steps)
Tan concentrating as he applies paint to the lion’s head. 

Only when the painting process is completed and sealed with a layer of lacquer for a glossy look and as protection against moisture, can the moving parts such as eyelids, ears and mouth be attached along with a mirror which is supposed to ward off evil spirits.

As a finishing touch, Siow’s daughter Hooi Boon, 31, attaches fur, ribbons, and bulbous fur balls to enhance the attractiveness of the lion head, especially when it is in motion.