Culture & Leisure

Century-old Tradition Warding off Diseases Driven away by the Pandemic

Burnt smell of incense, flaming joss sticks and cheering of the people... the Fire Dragon have been parading along the streets of Tai Hang since a century ago. However, this year Mr Chan, who is the commander in chief of the Dance, felt hopeless about the spectacle's first cancellation ever.

"A lot of customers and residents from Tai Hang still came to support us [despite we did it differently this year]," said the 74-year-old Fire Dragon Commander in Chief and Organizer proudly with a twinge of sadness in his voice.

Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance is held during Mid-Autumn Festival every year. The tradition was legended to drive away diseases. Yet, the Tai Hang Residents' Welfare Association announced in early September that the annual ritual would be cancelled this year in view of the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing measures. 

Chan Tak-fai has been the Fire Dragon Commander in Chief for over four decades.  "I was told that it was my passion towards Fire Dragon Dance that made me chosen as the Commander in Chief," said the 74-year-old.

Since the Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance was first held in 1880, the annual ritual was only cancelled once during the Japanese Occupation in December 1941 to August 1945.  Even during the SARS pandemic in 2003, it was held as usual.

"The Dance was performed earlier than it usually was in mid-May that year, hoping to drive away the SARS," Mr Chan added.  

Fire Dragon Commander, Chan Tak-fai believes that the Dance is a possible way to drive away COVID-19.

The Dance that year was seen as effective in driving away the SARS pandemic.  As stated by the World Health Organization, Hong Kong has removed from the list of SARS affected areas on June 23 that year as there were no new cases for 20 consecutive days.  

Yet, so far, there is not any scientific proof that the Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance could drive away diseases although the SARS pandemic eventually stopped after the Dance. But still, Mr Chan places his belief towards the ritual. 

"No one knows could the Dance drive off the pandemic.  You have to try out all the possible ways before knowing which one could drive away a pandemic," said Mr Chan. 

"Similar to curing the sickness, you have to try out different types of medicines before knowing which one works for you." 

When COVID-19 broke out in Hong Kong, Mr Chan wanted to perform the Dance to drive away the disease.  But it is not as simple as it seems.

The materials required for making the dragon are made by factories in mainland.  "As the pandemic hit China hard during early 2020, the materials required for the Dance could only be made when workers return," said Mr Chan.

He also said that a permit is also required from the Hong Kong government before performing the ritual.

Such situation leaves the team no choice but to cancel the annual ritual.

"The annual ritual of using the bigger dragon in the Dance is cancelled. Therefore, we replaced it with a dragon that is smaller in size instead," said Mr Chan.  

"Usually the body of the dragon is made up of 31 sticks.  But this year, it is reduced to 6 only."

Apart from shortening the length of the dragon, the ritual was only held for two days and the number of people participating in the event was reduced from over 300 people to 20 people only, with each standing 6 feet apart maintaining social distance.

Despite all the troubles, the Dance meant more than a tradition to the residents of Tai Hang.

"Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance is more than just a belief of driving away the pandemic, it is also a major event for people in Tai Hang," said Clarisse Yeung Suet-ying.

As part of the Tai Hang community, Clarisse Yeung Suet-ying also participates in the annual ritual.

"People who has left Tai Hang in their early age would return and help out in the annual ritual." Being the District Councillor of Tai Hang, Ms Yeung said that the annual ritual unites people in Tai Hang and provides an opportunity for them to gather together.  

She said that not only will the people growing up in the neighborhood join the annual festivities, newly joined neighbors, no matter their nationality, would participate in the event as well.

"Being part of the ritual requires your full devotion.  When the Fire Dragon Dance begins, I can feel that all of the members are connected together, hoping to perform our best in the ritual," said Ms Yeung, who is also one of the participants of the Fire Dragon Dance.

The belief of Fire Dragon Dance being able to drive away pandemic started at 1800.  During the period, a snake appeared due to typhoon.  After the Tai Hang residents beat the snake to death and placed it in the box outside the police station, the snake was found missing the next day.  

In view of the pandemic, Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance is cancelled this year despite people believe that it could ward off diseases.

Then a pandemic broke out in the area causing a lot of deaths.  A senior resident listened to the bodhisattva who appeared in his dream and performed the Fire Dragon Dance to drive away the disease.  People in Tai Hang performed the Dance for three consecutive days during the 14 to 16 of the eighth lunar month, during Mid-Autumn Festival.  The pandemic eventually stopped and Fire Dragon Dance has become an annual ritual in Mid-Autumn since then.

"The bright sparks produced by lighting the Chinese incense along with the noise of fire crackers can keep pests away," Mr Chan said.  He added that the older generation viewed pests as the cause of the pandemic.  

Due to the prohibition of fire crackers in Hong Kong, Chinese incense was used instead. 

Dr Mark Meulenbeld, Associate Dean of the Department of Chinese Culture at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University of Hong Kong added that the incense symbolizes communication with Gods.  

"It acts as an offering that is often used to send a message or make a request. The message to Gods will be taken up along with the smoke," said the 48-year-old.

The Commander in Chief of Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance is also a bearer on the National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance is listed as one of the Intangible Cultural Heritage since 2011, according to the Intangible Cultural Heritage Office.

《The Young Reporter》

The Young Reporter (TYR) started as a newspaper in 1969. Today, it is published across multiple media platforms and updated constantly to bring the latest news and analyses to its readers.

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