Brunei Darussalam

AWAKENING THE LION

2008 is the Year of the Rat and while the Chinese calendar consists of 12 animal signs in rotation, the Lion remains the central and most symbolic icon of the Chinese calendar and the Lion Dance is usually performed traditionally as a ceremony to exorcise evil spirits and to summon luck and fortune. The lion, as you’ll have also noticed, is traditionally regarded as a guardian creature and this tradition of the lion dance has carried on for centuries with different countries adopting different styles.

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Last night, at the Chung Ching Middle School in Seria, this tradition is celebrated year after year drawing large crowds of people including fellow blogger Jewelle to witness the official “awakening” ceremony of the new lions. This year I thought it would be interesting to bring up-close images of this tradition to my readers as I understand in the olden days, many were forbidden to look at this part of the ceremony especially the part when blood is brushed on to the lion’s eyes. It may have been that in the past, blood from a chicken was used during the ceremony whereas a red dye symbolising blood is used nowadays.

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All images © Jan Shim Photography

Beyond tradition, lion dance performances have become somewhat of a entertainment universally appreciated by many around the world. As a kid, I remembered just how vibrant the town of Kuala Belait used to be when there was no restriction on how and where lion dance performances were held—one moment they were on stilts high above ground attempting to reach for the abundance of cash while another lion on the ground attempts to carve a pamelo. The whole time noises from long strings of fire crackers added to the festive mood.

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This picture was shot last year at the Hua Ho residence after the performance was over and one Chinese newspaper journalist crept up from behind me to photograph me shooting this picture—clearly one of those light hearted moments during CNY!

I’d like to end with this personal observation. In recent years, that festive mood have somewhat diminished and the town where majority of business predominantly being Chinese has gone quiet and peaceful, quite the contrast to see a culture rich in colours and vibrancy have all but disappeared. To be able to capture these images  of what’s left to be appreciated however short the moments has become a privilege. Oh how times have changed!

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25 thoughts on “AWAKENING THE LION

  1. Jan,

    Thanks for the pictures. I was one of them who was forbidden to see this traditional procedure. Now I finally get to see it close up even.

    Thanks!!!

    RAT is the first animal of the 12 animal signs. Hope it is going to be good year for everyone with this new rotation of the animal sign.

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  2. Great close ups. Is it the 85mm speaking ? 🙂

    And did you use flash ?

    I’m wondering where and when they’ll awaken the lions in BSB, would be a great photo opportunity. But I’ll be at the BSB Temple on 6th and 7th for CNY Eve and CNY Day ceremonies.

    Hope to take great pictures like you did. 😀

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  3. What a pleasure to be able to view the actual “awakening” of the lions via your photos. I am glad that they are not using real blood now.

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  4. Zul,

    I shot the entire set exclusively on the 5D and 70-200mm @ f2.8 with and without flash depending on the scene. I capped my ISO to 1600 which on the 5D is very clean and with the fast moving lions in action, freezing them without the help from a flash you’d end up with too slow a shutter speed to achieve that. That said, my flash was pointed everywhere else but directly at the subject to fill the scene.

    There are two things that I want and have always wanted to do on the first day of Chinese New Year but can’t. First of which is the mob scene at the Hua Ho residence in Manggis and the temple in KB. We have our first day rituals that keep us house bound. I’m usually at the Hua Ho residence on the second day for diplomatic missions visits and also on 3rd or 4th for the lion dance.

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  5. Thanks Sharon.

    For a small but significant ‘awakening’ ceremony there was quite a crowd and it was particular good to meet some people whom I hadn’t seen very much of for the past year. Event like this brings the small Seria community together on a anniversary basis and I’m glad you enjoyed the photos.

    Do check back from time to time for updates.

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  6. Splendid illustrations of the ritual Jan, like always. Yes, I was told about chicken’s blood being used in the past to dot the lion eyes. Just curious whether that is still being practice here or in other countries for that matter? And it’s deem bad luck if new lions brought to perform during the CNY did not go through these ritual, is that true?

    By the way I am covering the same ceremony in Chung Hua School tonight. I heard it’s major one in Belait district. So I hope to bump into you, in case you are attending. Just wave with your big long lens.. hehe

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  7. From what I have seen lately, it’s likely true that chicken blood has been used in recent memory. Had the tradition continue for any considerable length of time, the onset of bird flu would have most certainly stopped the practice. Now, exactly what the replacement dye is made of, I don’t know but am curious enough to find out.

    As for bad luck, I shudder to imagine how severe that would be if an unceremonied lion accidentally broke a mirror it was performing in front of—whoa! That’s me stretching the imagination a bit … as for truth in the matter of bad luck, your guess is as good as mine.

    I won’t be going to CHMS tonight, as I’ve just returned from some work and have prior commitments and didn’t know about the gig until last night and have almost forgotten about it until you reminded me. CHMS KB was my former school and I have many fond memories of it. I would have loved to head down there and meet people I haven’t seen for a long time but I guess I’ll leave that for another time!

    Do keep us posted after your coverage.

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  8. Since everyone is on the topic of blood…I thought I would just take the opportunity to share why blood is being used.

    Blood symbolizes sacrifice. In olden days, whenever a sin is committed, they are to slaughter an animal and offer it to God to have their sins transfered to the animal so that they are pardoned.

    BTW do you also realised that most chinese family hang a red cloth over their door post during Lunar New Year? Have you asked why? I believe most people will tell you the same story you probably have heard that the red cloth actually drive away the evil creature called ‘Nian’ that terrorise the villagers long long time ago.

    Well, this practise is actually taken from the bible under the book of Exodus 12. This is called THE PASSOVER. During those days, God gave instructions to his people sacrifice a lamb for their family and offer it to God. And he also instructed the people to take some blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses. So when God pass over your house and if he sees blood on your doorframes, no destructive plague will touch you.

    The significant about the above is talking about sins and the redemption of sins thru a sacrifice. If there are sins, you need blood to redeem you from sins so that you sins are transferred to the sacrificial lamb and the lamb die on your behalf.

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  9. Thanks David for your thoroughness. It takes a certain someone to be able to divulge this amount of history. I hope you’re enjoying your trip abroad and looking forward to spending your CNY celebrations in Hong Kong. It was around this time last year that I wandered the streets of Hong Kong Island and had a really good time with just the EOS 20D, EF10-22mm lens and a determination to discover this fascinating place on foot.

    BTW do you also realised that most chinese family hang a red cloth over their door post during Lunar New Year? Have you asked why? I believe most people will tell you the same story you probably have heard that the red cloth actually drive away the evil creature called ‘Nian’ that terrorise the villagers long long time ago.

    This custom isn’t practiced here in Brunei nor have I noticed the red cloth on Chinese New Year. It’s only during the actual day wedding that you see the red cloth over the door and down the sides too for similar reasons to drive away negative elements.

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  10. Been a big fan of your work (pics), I was very active in the lion dance during my Chung Ching school days with my older bro and as an adult now I am still mesmerized by the lion dance esp the lion itself (my fav has always been the black lion)and I remember how ‘magical’ the atmosphere was during the ‘awakening’ or ‘kai kuang’ ceremony which back in my days used real chicken blood and was only held at night. Ironically my Chinese zodiac is that of the tiger so maybe that explains my fondness for this rich,colorful and aged old tradition which many still find hard to comprehend but thats the beauty of our Chinese culture,so rich and beautiful-I’m so proud to be Chinese.

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  11. Thanks John,

    I wasn’t aware I had other “work” in parallel to my photography business :).

    I dug a little deeper into the mystery surrounding the use of chicken blood and consulted an elderly individual and the revelation is one of pity and amazement. Apparently, the blood would come from the red part of the roosters head called the comb where it would get pricked and the blood that bled would be used in the ritual to dot the eyes of the lion. Silly me, I had the impression that the blood would come from a slaughtered chicken but knowing what I know now, I can see the logic of using a live rooster as a symbol of purity.

    Leaving that rather graphic imagery for a minute, I had always wanted to play the drums and always envied the students who spent am entire enhatsting day in the heat performing for charitable causes. It’s a lot of hardship enduring the hot sun but it’s quite am experiencebeing so close to the drum, gong and hanging out with fellow school mates. Then two years ago I had a taste of what it’s like when I joined Hua Ho’s lion contingent and roamed the residence of Kampong Baru in Seria for an entire afternoon and the opportunity to photograph the procession, going from house to house meeting and greeting the residents. All the years of wondering what it must have been like to be part of this exciting troupe had finally been realized with much satisfaction.

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  12. Hi Jan,

    Great photos as always. I saw 3 performances in Seattle, and would have seen even more but had other commitments. It’s hard to beat a good lion dance performance.

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  13. The Chinese have their own rich history and the use of blood was not taken from the bible. Sorry. Anyway, red is always considered good luck because it is the color of blood and blood is the life force that drives us. When we are poisoned and dying it turns dark.

    Anyway, as far as hoi gong or kai kuang is concerned, nowadays most will use red paint. However, the use of cinnabar ink was used as it contained mercury and was thought to prolong life-this goes back to the first emperor of China from the Qin dynasty-of course we now know better.

    The use of a rooster’s blood is because it is the most yang of animals (real not mythical). To dispell yin you need yang energy it is believed. The comb on the rooster must also number 7. All of this is a taoist tradition. Yang is life and yin death.

    If you want more info on lion dancing and some of its traditions go to my website where I share what little I know.

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  14. Thanks William for sharing. As a Brunei-born, English-educated Chinese, I’m still learning about this very colourful and rich culture at 39 years old. I appreciate your contribution to this post and helping to enlighten me and other readers.

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  15. Came across your blogs over the holidays – very interesting read and love your photos – those are great shots.

    Now I reside in Canada but I used to do lion-dance and martial arts for Chung Ching school in the early seventies during the New Year then. Your photos brought me back to those years where I can vividly remember the lion awakening ceremonies.

    Thanks for all those great photo-shoots.

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  16. Hello from Brunei. Lately, I have received a number of comments from readers who have moved abroad and are reminiscing their memorable years in Brunei. I am happy to be in this position to bring back “vivid” memories of your time in Brunei when I have very recollection of my childhood and teenage years.

    Much of the efforts here go into creating memories of my work just so one day in the not-so-distant future they remind me of what I’ve accomplished and also precious moments to share with my kids when they’re old enough to be curious about what their dad did. Hence my my tagline “A Moment Lived. A Journey Shared”

    Thank you for visiting!

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