The Immigrant Dragons of Bendigo Part I

Written by Billy Potts and Edited by Justina Chong

This is the fourth in a series of articles in which I explore the cryptozoology of Hong Kong. This article was published in a shorter form in Zolima City Mag.

It’s a cool January afternoon and I’m waiting in a bus terminal at Yuen Long station. A blue minivan pulls up and I’m beckoned to jump in. Crammed in the back are Anita Jack, Managing Director of the Golden Dragon Museum, Daniel Beck, Vice President of the museum, and Ben Devanny, from the Bendigo City Council, along with their translator, Heidi Yeung. They have travelled from their homes in Australia and Taipei to the hamlet of Pak Sha Tsuen in search of a dragon maker.

The Australians seek a maker to create a dragon for the City of Bendigo. This dragon, Dai Gum Loong (大金龍 or “Big Golden Dragon”), will relieve the retiring Sun Loong (新龍, or “New Dragon”) and continue the 126-year-old legacy of the original Loong (龍 or “Dragon”), who first graced Bendigo’s streets in 1892.

The Bendigonians’ quest began years ago with painstaking research and visits to Hong Kong. The search has been challenging, Jack tells me- dragon makers don’t list ads in the telephone book saying, “I make dragons.” To hunt makers down, Jack and her team have looked into artisan pedigrees, tracing names and shops. We’re going to meet one of the dragon makers today.

We veer off the highway and negotiate a network of narrow dirt roads before stopping at a large warehouse. An unfinished papier-mache lion head sits outside, painted orange by the mid-afternoon light. Today’s dragon maker, Kenneth Mo, greets us at the door. Portly and bespectacled, he is not what I had expected. He is young.

Kenneth Mo, dragon-maker contender

Mo comes from a respected line of makers. He’s in his late early 40s, but already has 27 years of experience in traditional paper crafts. His career began as a young qilin dancer, when he learned to mend the qilins. After 7 years apprenticing, he opened an incense shop in Tai Po. Soon, he’d branched out into paper goods.

Kenneth Mo, the paper craftsman who started with an incense shop

Mo is unusual in this business for the breadth and completeness of his work. In Hong Kong, he tells me, most sifus specialise in creating specific parts of creatures. One sifu might specialise in lion heads and another in qilin heads. Sifus like Mo, who make entire creatures from head to toe, are rare because this requires space. “The rarest thing in Hong Kong is space,” he says.

We enter Mo’s 2,000-square-foot workshed. Mythical beasts crowd the space from floor to ceiling. Enormous lotus-shaped lanterns bloom on folding tables. Mo’s children play beneath a flock of paper phoenixes and cranes. A dragon’s body with printed scales has been unfurled along the length of the workshop like a psychedelic serpentine rug.

The Bendigonians interview Kenneth Mo

The crew from Bendigo want to know if Kenneth Mo is the dragon maker they’re looking for. To secure the job, Mo must demonstrate that he has the requisite skills and to deliver the dragon by January 2019, in time for the lunar new year. A normal dragon, measuring between 30 and 50 metres, takes three months to assemble. Dai Gum Loong will be longer than 120 metres.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Daniel Beck, Ben Devanny and Anita Jack discuss details of the dragon brief with Kenneth Mo

In the workshop, Jack produces an object wrapped in plastic: a scale taken from the Bendigo’s original dragon, Loong. Made from faded but fine patterned silk mounted on papier mache, the scale is ornate and studded with tiny brass fixtures inset with even tinier mirrors.

“Too small!” exclaims the dragon maker as he examines a mirror. “No, it’s perfect! Exactly the right size,” says Beck, a hint of indignation in his voice. Mo digs a long fingernail under a brass fixture and pries the 126-year-old ornament off. With a horrified gasp, Jack withdraws the scale from Mo’s hands.

This doesn’t bode well for the contender.

Kenneth Mo holds a tiny mirror from a damaged ornament which has come off of Loong

Gold-rush dreams and the origins of Loong

At 126 years old, Loong is the world’s oldest imperial dragon. Nobody knows precisely how he  arrived in Bendigo, a city 150 kilometres outside of Melbourne, in 1892. Yet there he’s been, beneath the Australian sun, his silken flanks glinting with thousands of beads and tiny mirrors, adorned with rare kingfisher feathers, brilliant like a crisp azure sky. Incongruous against this Antipodean backdrop, he soon became a beloved part of the collective imagination, delighting crowds at parades for lunar new year and Easter to a cacophony of cymbals and drums.

Loong was brought from Foshan to this young country by Chinese immigrants who dreamed of striking rich in gold-rush towns like Bendigo, Ballarat, and Beechworth. The Chinese did not think it wise to create any fanfare around Loong in a climate of hardship, isolation, and racism. They chose to move gently, softly, hoping for the best. Surely their white Australian neighbours would be happy to receive the good fortune and blessings of an imperial dragon.

Requiring 22 people to move him, Loong first appeared on Bendigo’s streets at the city’s 1892 Easter parade. It took the Chinese community almost 35 years to raise the money to build and bring over the 40-metre-long beast. How long it took to construct him is uncertain; likely it took months, if not years.

Loong’s carriers stop for a smoke break during a parade in the 1930s

The splendid dragon soon became an icon, not only for Bendigo but for all of Australia. From the 1890s to 1900s, Loong heralded the opening of hospitals in Adelaide, Sydney and Bendigo. He traveled to raise money for the sick and needy, winning the hearts of people countrywide. Soon, Jack tells me, Loong came to symbolize community, benevolence, diversity and cultural acceptance.

Loong Against the Ugly History of White Australia

Loong’s warm welcome stood in sharp contrast with the reception Chinese immigrants received at the height of the White Australia policy, introduced in 1901. Against the backdrop of racist immigration-restriction policies, Loong “still managed to bring the people together and to get the white community to support the Chinese,” says Jack.

The Golden Dragon Museum, Jack tells me, has a certificate of appreciation from the Mayor of Bendigo, dated 1929, congratulating the Chinese community on their performance and thanking them for raising money for the hospital. The certificate, remarkably, is in both English and Chinese. It was presented during the height of the White Australia policy, “this event made the community celebrate diversity.”

Dragons: Part of Bendigo’s Heritage

Loong was added to the Victorian Heritage Register in November 2007. He was last paraded in 2012, more than 100 years after arriving in Australia. Loong now receives the state’s highest level of protection.

Loong may be the oldest dragon in Bendigo, but he is not alone. The city has a veritable weyr of dragons, including a diaphanous Night Dragon that glows by lantern light, another that floats above Chinese New Year crowds on helium balloons, and Sun Loong, who took Loong’s place in Bendigo’s parade festivities when the older dragon retired.

Now Jack unwraps a second parcel. The dragon scale she produces is newer, more vividly colored, but less delicate than Loong’s scale. This one belongs to Sun Loong.

One of Sun Loong’s intricate scales

Sun Loong, the World’s Longest Imperial Dragon

In 1969, when 77-year-old Loong retired, the City of Bendigo needed a replacement. The Cultural Revolution had all but purged China of its heritage, leaving it bereft of culture and folk tradition. Loong’s homeland could no longer create a second dragon for Bendigo. The city looked instead to the colony of Hong Kong, where traditional paper crafts and folk practices were alive and well. This is where master Lo On (lo4 ngon1 羅安), of Lo On Kee Workshop (lo4 ngon1 gei3 羅安記) created Sun Loong.

Today Sun Loong is the longest imperial dragon in the world. His original length was 60 metres, which won him the title of longest imperial dragon in the southern hemisphere. But in 1980, a group in Melbourne attempted to oust Sun Loong by commissioning Dai Loong (大龍 or “Big Dragon”), whom they intended to be a few feet longer. To protect Sun Loong’s title, Bendigo organised an additional AUD30,000 to lengthen him. Since then, Sun Loong’s exact length has been kept secret, but rumour has it he’s between 100 and 140 metres long.

Now, 48 years on, the time has come for Sun Loong to retire. The Australians are keen to see if Kenneth Mo is fit to build the successor, Dai Gum Loong, to maintain Bendigo’s dracontine legacy.

Sun Loong on parade in the 1980s

Chinese culture: An essential part of Bendigonian life

Daniel Beck tells me that he has been performing the lion dance for over 18 years. His father had done free legal work for the Chinese association at the time and his parents were friends with its president.

Beck fell in love with lion dancing as a child and began training at 7 years old. Eventually, Beck was bestowed the honour of carrying Sun Loong’s head in parades, making him the first non-Chinese to do so. These days the core of Bendigo’s lion-dance team is Caucasian.

Daniel Beck inspects a qilin

Between showing us the movements of a qilin dance and clashing cymbals to a festive rhythm, Beck demonstrates his encyclopaedic knowledge of Bendigo’s dragons. He is familiar with each dragon’s construction and materials, as well as music, choreography, and dancers’ costumes.

Beck, like many Bendigonians, is proud to partake in Bendigo’s Chinese culture. Because of the Dragons, many of Bendigo’s children have enthusiastically embraced Chinese culture.

Dragons make it rain on Bendigo

Aside from their cultural importance, the dragons are also vital to Bendigo’s economy. Loong and Sun Loong are owned by the city;  the Golden Dragon Museum provides them with care. Ben Devanny, the Bendigo City Council representative, tells me the Easter parade is the city’s largest event, drawing 100,000 visitors from all over the country, a majority of whom come specifically to see the dragon. To put this into perspective, Bendigo has a population of 100,000.

Bendigonians rely on their dragons as a major economic driver. All marketing materials for the city feature a photo of Sun Loong; the dragons are synonymous with Bendigo itself. Two full-time staff run the Easter parade, which earns the city AUD20 million a year. The parade is so popular that visitors must book hotel rooms more than four months in advance for five nights in a row or risk staying outside the city.

The cost of Dai Gum Loong

The city will be pouring around AUD250,000 AUD into Dai Gum Loong. These funds come from the federal and state governments, the Bendigo City Council, and private donations. An additional AUD500,000 will be spent on making costumes and accessories and on restoring Sun Loong.

Devanny, an accountant, is here to keep an eye on how Bendigo conducts its dragon affairs. He must account for restoring Sun Loong, contracting the construction of Dai Gum Loong, and acquiring all the accompanying regalia. He must also factor in airfare and accommodation for all parties involved in this mission: the winning dragon maker will visit Bendigo to study Loong and Sun Loong, and representatives from Bendigo need to visit Hong Kong throughout the making process.

With all that investment into Dai Gum Loong, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Are Kenneth Mo’s dragon-making skills up to par?

Beck lifts Mo’s dragon and puts it through its paces. He stumbles under the weight of the saurian head; the balance is a bit off. Still, Beck has high praise for Mo’s skills: he admires Mo’s cane work and thinks the frame is well executed. But he’s unhappy with the materials. The plastic beading, trimmings, and machine embroidery are not up to standard, and this dragon lacks the mirrors and metal trinkets found on imperial dragons. Lucky for Mo, Beck is confident that, with the right materials, he might be up to the job.

Although these details will be hard to discern during parades, Dai Gum Loong will also be under heavy scrutiny as a museum artefact. “Part of the exercise of coming here is to make sure the person making it is a master, not a manufacturer,” says Beck.

Beck takes one of Mo’s dragons for a test run

“This can’t be a copy of Sun Loong,” adds Devanny. “This has to be a new dragon.”

The representatives refuse to settle for anything less than the best.

The revival of dragon-making

A year ago, Jack met several artisans in Hong Kong. She discovered that some weren’t aware of one another, and were unfamiliar with aspects of their shared history. She has since helped connect them and aiding in the forming of a community of dragon-makers working to keep the art alive.

Not only will the chosen dragon maker be paid handsomely for their work but they will also be paid to learn. In creating Dai Gum Loong, they will revive lost skills through diligent study of the past at the Golden Dragon Museum. They’ll learn to make dragon scales in the Qing style by examining the museum’s collection and reverse engineering the process.

The Bendigonians emphasise that this contract is a gift. Says Jack: “Imagine dedicating your life to this and seeing a scale that’s a hundred years old and then being gifted this contract. It’s a really honourable gift that touches the soul and the heart more than the pocket at the end of the day.”

Against all odds, Loong’s legacy continues

Loong enjoys his status as the oldest imperial dragon in the world because of his immigrant origin story and remote Antipodean home. And thanks to its uninterrupted tradition of folk-art making, Hong Kong remains the birthplace of dragons. But in the process of modernisation, today’s dragon-making uses new materials and old skills have been lost forever.

To complicate matters, Hong Kong’s humid climate has ensured the demise of every single one of the city’s old imperial dragons. The humid heat rots their silk and paper hides. Finally, these dragons have their bodies curled around their heads in preparation for a ceremonial burning, their tattered remains returned to the heavens out of respect.

For the people of Bendigo, burning Loong is out of the question. “There would be a public outcry: ‘You can’t burn our dragon!’” Jack says. Beck adds: “There was pressure from the Caucasian community [to preserve Loong]. He [is] too well loved.’

Ultimately, this blend of white Australian and Chinese cultures, which Loong created, delivered him from the pyre and saved his kind from extinction. And now Bendigo’s dragons have come to the aid of their Hong Kong cousins.

At the time of writing we didn’t know if Kenneth Mo had won the contract. You can follow the developments of Dai Gum Loong here:

Kenneth Mo holding the tiny mirror from a damaged ornament in his hand

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