In Search of the Dragon

This is the first in a series of articles in which we explore the cryptozoology of Hong Kong. Each month we’ll be taking a close look at one of the city’s many imaginary creatures. Naturally, the first addition to our mythical menagerie will be dragons.

Here Be Dragons

The fire dragon workshop – welcome to Pokfulam Village

In the distance Bing saw eight peaks over the peninsula. Far from home, the alien landscape set the seven year old’s imagination racing – in his eyes the eight peaks took the form of eight enormous dragons and he, the emperor of Song, was the ninth. Henceforth, he decreed, the peninsula would be known as 九龍  – the nine dragons, or Kowloon. Before long the child’s world would come to an end. His armies would mount a valiant defense at the battle of Yamen before being crushed by the looming Mongol hordes. With all lost, a loyal courtier clutched the young dragon tightly in his arms and jumped from a sea cliff, ending both their lives and a dynasty. The Emperor Zhao Bing wasn’t Hong Kong’s first dragon, nor would he be its last. In the island metropolis dragons are everywhere, weaving through the gleaming steel and glass of the city, frozen in wooden tracery, standing inert in the form of countless statues, lending their name to streets, buildings, food, and even people – the city’s favourite son, Bruce Lee, is the ‘little dragon’. They fly zephyr-like from mountain to sea through dragon gates that ensure good feng-shui, good fortune and fine wind-resistant architecture. Dragons are alive and well in Hong Kong. Nowhere is this truer than in Pokfulam Village, nestled in the west of the island amongst verdant hills.

On a stiflingly hot September morning I approach Pokfulam. The village dates back to the 1670s when the Chan, Wong and Lo clans fled south to escape the Revolt of the Three Feudatories, an uprising against the Kangxi Emperor. At first glance the sprawling collection of corrugated tin roofs, clinging limpet-like to the side of Mount Kellett and High West, could be mistaken for a squatter settlement – a makeshift favela. The village entrance gives the impression of a castle’s ramparts and defending those ramparts – dragons. Rendered in bamboo and wire, they seem to roar at passing traffic. A bamboo structure bearing a large ‘welcome’ sign draws me in. As my eyes adjust to the relative gloom I realise the structure is full of miniature dragons. Some are just heads, their complex forms reduced to the simplest lines and captured in bamboo. Some snake intricately around potted plants and stout poles. I am here to find one dragon, in particular- the Pokfulam Fire Dragon.

Some are just heads, their complex forms reduced to the simplest lines.

Origins of the Fire Dragon

Some snake intricately around potted plants and stout poles.

I meet Alun Siu Kwun Long just below the village bus stop. Presiding over a scene of intense industry, Siu is the coordinator for the Pokfulam Fire Dragon. Grey-haired and standing at moderate height, he has the situation well in hand. ‘We’re here assembling the Fire Dragon.’ He points over to a large construction of bent bamboo and then to a 30 meter length of rope, ‘Over there you see the big dragon’s head. Over here is the dragon’s body.’ To our right, at least 30 people are packing straw onto the rope which is held aloft by a series of bamboo poles. Pliers in hand, they wrap and fasten the straw with lengths of wire under the watchful eye of a sifu dragon builder. ‘Some are villagers and some are friends from an NGO who’ve come all the way from Sai Kung to help. We started last week and we’ll have groups of volunteers coming every Sunday till the Mid Autumn Festival to construct this Fire Dragon.’

The Fire Dragon ritual has over 100 years of history and has its origins in a plague that ravaged the village, decimating its livestock. The villagers burned incense in the belief that fire would burn the plague away and, miraculously, it worked. Says Siu, ‘the people got together and decided that just carrying burning incense around wasn’t quite good enough, something was missing. Dragons hold a revered place in Chinese culture, so slowly the people of Pokfulam Village began constructing a straw structure in the shape of a dragon, covered in burning incense. Slowly it became what it is today.’ ‘Why does it happen at Mid Autumn Festival?’ Siu asks, ‘Because at Mid Autumn Festival everybody comes home and can receive the dragon’s blessings’. The ritual, possibly the oldest of its kind, has become a fundamental part of village life. There is no connection to Tai Hang Village’s similar Fire Dragon ritual but ‘the desire is the same and the origins similar’.

How a Fire Dragon is Made

A Pokfulam youth works on the small dragon’s head.

According to Siu, the process of assembling the gargantuan beast is not complicated. Typically the entire creature measures over 70 meters. ‘We buy the materials (bamboo, straw, wire and rope), then sifus teach everyone how to use them – to make the dragon’s body from rope and how to evenly distribute straw across that rope so it’s the right size and girth.’ The straw, which sits leaning against a wall in rice sacks, is generic bi-product from rice cultivation. ‘It’s the most common material. We used to have it in Hong Kong back when the Dairy Farm was here. The whole mountain was covered with the stuff but since the Dairy Farm shut down we’ve been importing straw from the mainland.’ Enormous 10 inch long incense sticks are used on the night. All the materials and proceedings are paid for with offerings from the villagers which are collected half a month in advance of the ritual. ‘We don’t mind if each person contributes $5 or $10, the important thing is that the whole village takes part.’

Members of a Sai Kung NGO help pack straw onto the dragon’s body.

Ng Kong-kin, a master craftsman, is the village’s Fire Dragon sifu and oversees construction each year while his brother, Ng Kong-nan, trains the 30 or so participants including dancers, drummers and fire lookouts who guide the dragon through the village’s narrow streets under the full moon.

Typically, 60 to 70 people from all over Hong Kong volunteer in creating the dragon each year, although, according to Siu ‘ the whole job was done by 3 or 4 people in the old days’. It goes without saying that many hands make light work but does the fact that outsiders take part impact the authenticity of the ritual? ‘No’, says Siu. ‘People always ask “shouldn’t the Pokfulam Dragon be made by Pokfulam villagers?”. In fact we encourage everyone to take part because we feel this is a community wide project. It may be organized by Pokfulam’s villagers but everyone is welcome to take part. I feel that this is an activity that the whole of society should be able to participate in.’

Keeping the Fire Burning

‘You see over there?’ Siu asks. He is pointing at a smaller dragon head. ‘What is it?’ He immediately answers himself: ‘We’re building a second, smaller dragon.’ While Pokfulam Village welcomes all to participate in their traditions, it is also mindful to preserve the skills and knowledge behind them. ‘Two years ago we started building a second smaller dragon, this one is built exclusively by the youths who grew up inside Pokfulam village. We call our mission “薪火相傳“ (passing the flame). We’re doing this in the hope of passing down traditions and inspiring young people from the village to take an interest in their own culture. It’s very difficult to ensure that traditions continue so we’re opening the door for them to come in and participate. We hope that if all the young people do it together then it will be fun for them and at the same time we’re passing the torch. As we get older we can’t keep doing this. These young people are slowly being groomed to take over. This is just the beginning.’

Pokfulam’s older generation is ready to pass the torch onto their children.

This process of passing skills down by mouth has been going on for more than a century. ‘We started watching our forebears doing this from the age of about 10. We learned by watching the uncles and we figured out how to bend bamboo and create the straw body. Slowly we developed the skills. Nobody really had a sifu teaching them specifically how to do it. Every villager of our age knows how to make a Fire Dragon. Back in the old days everybody made a Fire Dragon. If they weren’t dancing with the dragon they were building the dragon. In the village today there are probably about 40 or 50 people who know how to do it. Ng sifu insists on making a concerted effort to teach every year.’

The Fire Dragon tradition seems to be in good hands and it is difficult to imagine that the tradition was almost lost only very recently. Says Siu, ‘We stopped for a period of about three years because it wasn’t organized within the village. Lots of little groups would each make a dragon and there were just too many. Because of this, the large dragon stopped. About ten years ago we organized and unified the process. Since then we’ve had one large dragon for the whole village. Gradually this organization became the Fire Dragon Society, since then we’ve been overseeing it each year.’

The Big Night

A well stocked village shop.

With just over two weeks till the big night, everything is in full swing. Siu leads us through labyrinthine passages lit with the glow of Red A market lamps. A workman repairs a traditional shop gate while a fishmonger displays the day’s catch. We emerge from the dark and follow narrow village paths flanked on both sides with stone buildings and mom and pop shops. We are led into a large two storey building with pink tiled floors, this is the Fire Dragon Team’s headquarters.

Labyrinthine passages lit with the glow of Red A market lamps.

The right side of the room is piled high with bamboo dragons, flags, banners and other ceremonial paraphernalia. Siu entreats us to join him on the roof to enjoy a commanding view of the whole village. ‘On the big night we will start work at 6:30. We will light the incense at the bamboo structure by the village gate. At 6:45 special guests will arrive and they will paint the dragon’s eyes. At the bus stop we will parade the dragon and then we will give offerings at the Li Ling Divine Pagoda’. The two-storey miniature pagoda is another part of Pokfulam’s esoteric lore. Thought to be the second oldest in Hong Kong, its origins are uncertain but oral tradition tells of the structure being an offering to a divine spirit who would protect the village from evil spirits.

A fishmonger displays the day’s catch.

We will go the the Temple of the God of the Underworld to worship our main deity’ Siu continues. ‘After that we will replace the incense and the dragon will go into the village proper to bless each and every villager.’  Siu emphasizes that the Fire Dragon is not a performance but a ritual and the most important thing is to visit every single home.  

The roof of the Pokfulam Fire Dragon Team’s headquarters enjoys a commanding view of the whole village.

‘By the time we go from the bottom to the top [of the village] and back again it will be around 10:00. We’ll replace the incense and parade the dragon once more then we will give the dragon its sending off.’ Siu goes on to describe perhaps the most dramatic part of the entire ritual. ‘We’ll go past Wah Fu Estate, down to Waterfall Bay. We will change the incense one last time and worship, then we will bring the dragon into the sea. We will go into the water up to our chests and the incense will be extinguished by the water.’ All in all, the whole ritual goes till around midnight. ‘After that we will all return to the village where there will be suckling pig and beer – we will celebrate till 3:00AM. It will be a very joyous occasion.’ Siu smiles. ‘You must come, you will be most welcome.’

To be continued…

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