Old lion to keep roaring

Quality control: Kee inspecting lion heads at the Pak Hock Physical Training Association in Johor Baru. He has been repairing the heads for the past 50 years. — THOMAS YONG/The Star

JOHOR BARU: For the last 50 years, Kee Poo Woo has repaired thousands of lion heads and lion dance costumes.

The 75-year-old has weak knees now due to old age, but that has not stopped him.

Kee, who came here from China with his parents when he was six years old, said that one of the biggest threats to a lion dance costume is rainwater, as it can easily soak into the paper or cardboard, causing it to tear.

“There are many parts that get worn out or need replacing such as the mouth, eyes or even the ears,” he said, adding that sometimes the bamboo inside the head also gives way and needs to be replaced.

Kee, who is one of the oldest such “repairmen” in the city, said he picked up the skill on his own through trial and error after joining the Pak Hock Physical Training Association in Taman Sentosa in 1973.

“I was selling vegetables in a market in Johor Baru when I was invited to join the association. I was immediately selected to be head of the lion dance troupe, although I did not know how to perform at all.

“At that time, we only had three lion dance costumes, and they were damaged or needed repair due to wear and tear,” he said, adding that it was expensive to get them repaired professionally.

Kee said he took up the challenge of repairing the costumes with items that he bought at stationery or hardware shops.

He said the association has grown now and has its own building in Taman Sentosa with over 100 lion costumes. It even has its own lorry and van.

He added that the 55-year-old association has about 40 members, aged from six years old to those in their 40s, who take turns performing.

Kee, who has since retired but still helps out at the association as a volunteer, said Chinese New Year is the busiest season of the year.

“We attend between six and 15 events daily,” he said, adding that this year, due to the unpredictable weather, at least six lion heads have been damaged.

“After a two-year hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic, we are all excited as we have been getting many orders, including being fully booked for Chap Goh Meh on Sunday,” he said.

Asked about his retirement plans, the bachelor – who still cannot perform the lion dance – said he would continue his job as a repairman, despite having been training an apprentice for five years now.

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