Saigon lion dancers mask longings while cheering others

By Thanh Tran   February 1, 2020 | 04:00 am PT
Saigon lion dancers mask longings while cheering others
The Little Dragon lion dance troupe performs at a New Year party for a company in Soc Trang Province in the Mekong Delta, December 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Tran.
Under their masks, youngsters performing the traditional lion dance to bring Tet luck and cheer to families and businesses yearn for familial warmth.

The dance, an important ritual during the Lunar New Year celebrations, is believed to usher in good luck for all ventures. Hence, the dancers are in high demand and very busy at this time.

Cuong and other troupe members use every chance they can to take a nap in the car between performances.

When they arrive at the performance venue, they quickly unload the equipment and get ready to perform.

For the last six years, Cuong's feet has been hopping to Tet rhythms. The troupe usually performs for almost the entire first lunar month of the Lunar New Year in HCMC and several other localities.

At the end of the season, they go back to their base in District 8, HCMC and celebrate Tet together, much later than the rest of the country.

Cuong, a native of the central province of Quang Ngai, promises himself every year that he would visit his sister who lives there. The promise has remained unfulfilled for years.

Today, he does not know how to find his home in Quang Ngai and has to rely on his mother for directions. But she hasn't been back for a long time either. She's now married to a man in Saigon and goes to his hometown every Tet. So Cuong has not had a traditional Tet family reunion for years and it does not look like a distinct possibility in the near future.

Cuong doesn't know why their parents split up. He only recalls living in Quang Ngai with his biological father and sister as a little boy. And his father died when he was 10. Cuong’s mother brought him to live with her in Saigon along with her second husband and his step-sibling.

At 14, Cuong struck out on his own, unable to live with his stepfather. It was as a street kid that he ran into the Long Nhi Duong (Little Dragon) lion dance troupe as they rehearsed under Cha Va Bridge in District 8. Captivated, he asked if he could join them, and the head of the troupe, Hung, assented.

Cuong, one of the Little Dragon troupe, takes a break after a performance in Soc Trang Province, December 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Tran

Cuong (L) and another member of the Little Dragon troupe take a break after a performance in Soc Trang Province, December 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Tran.

Cuong is one of the many street kids in the troupe. Unlike other lion dance troupes, the Little Dragon members also live together, with no home to return to.

"The kids here come from underprivileged backgrounds, most of them are fatherless, motherless, or impoverished and have been not received the affection of a family from a very young age," said Hung, 27.

Other members of the troupe call him by his stage name, Gia Trac Hung. His real name is Le Van Nam.

A father figure

To the troupe members, he is not just their mentor; they look up on him as a brother and a father figure.

The 27-year-old man has been fostering, nurturing, and teaching the boys lion dance for a decade now.

Hung himself is fatherless and had become a street kid at a young age, when he had just finished third grade. He did all kinds of work himself, including collecting plastic bags and selling lottery tickets. He remembers staying at different shelters for free meals and classes from when he was 9 or 10 years old.

The idea of taking up the lion dance came to him in 2010 as he hung out with group of street kids who gathered often at a construction site in District 8.

Gia Trac Hung, the troupes head (black shirt) and the members discuss their performance at the company in Soc Trang Province, December 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Tran

Gia Trac Hung, the troupe's head (black shirt) and the members discuss their performance in Soc Trang Province, December 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Tran.

"Back then I thought how we kids were wandering around, messing things up and fighting each other. When I thought of something that could bring them together, it came to mind that all of us loved lion dances, so why not take it up," Hung said.

Hung was 16 then and a worker at a package manufacturing factory. He quickly assumed a leadership role for the troupe and began hiring other street kids.

In the early days of the Little Dragon troupe, all members had side jobs to make money when they were not on the street performing. They pooled money to buy an old lion's head made of paper and wood, which is the most important of the costume. They began rehearsing at the construction site under the Cha Va Bridge where Hung first came up with the idea.

Hung was a bundle of nerves before the troupe’s first ever Tet performance. He had borrowed VND5 million ($215) from a relative to buy costumes and instruments.

Luckily, they earned VND9 million ($387) for all the gigs during their first Tet season in 2010. Hung used the money to repay the debt and bought two more drums.

In the early days, the team went hungry to bed many days. At times, they could only afford VND5,000 ($0.22) worth of fried pig fat with rice or a VND15,000 ($0.65) banh mi.

After their first gig, all Hung could afford was to buy 10 dumplings for the 12 members. But he was pleased that would get to dance more.

For most of the 10 years that the troupe has been in existence, it has been in debt. Taking care of several dozen youth, most of them teens, buying costumes and other accessories has so far meant that most of the earnings from Tet performances go into repaying debts.

Since the troupe was established, Hung has not visited his hometown for Tet. He did not say where his hometown was. He feels the younger troupe members need him to be there for them.

He does wish that they can enjoy Tet as a holiday like normal kids.

Managing a group of former street kids poses many challenges. He divides household tasks between them. Some cook, some clean, some take care of the room where they keep all the dancing kits.

He makes sure everyone goes to school, especially the new ones.

The little ones are sent to classes according to their age and level, the older ones for vocational training and English classes funded by charity organizations.

Those who attend classes only take up lion dancing outside of their school hours.

Some members of the Little Dragon troupe prepare the costume for their next Tet performance at their home, January 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Tran

Some very young members of the Little Dragon troupe prepare costumes for their Tet performance. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Tran.

Giving back

Despite the financial stretch they experience, the troupe reaches out to help others. They have provided free lunches to the elderly and helped hundreds of other children become part of their community. At times, they have raised funds for the charity work by selling lottery tickets.

Cuong, who will turn 22 in the coming Lunar New Year, remains passionate about the dance, despite fatigue, numerous accidents while practicing more dangerous moves and even heated arguments with other members. The dance requires patience, diligence, and solidarity. Mastering the dance means it becomes part of everyone's identity, he said.

After this dance season, he will go look for a job to save money to learn the craft of a mobile phone technician.

"I plan to go to work in the morning and help the kids rehearse lion dance at night."

The troupe is busiest during the Tet and the mid-autumn Full Moon festivals. These are the occasions when people gather together as a family, enjoy feasts and visit friends and relatives.

"I feel jealous when I see other families get to enjoy such things. But I'm used to it now. If I'm sad I can't put joy into my lion dance."

go to top