In the 1880s the small village of Tai Hang, in what is now Hong Kong, had a run of bad luck. First a typhoon hit, followed by a plague, and if that wasn’t enough, a few days later a python came and ate the livestock. A local soothsayer determined that the only way to stop these bad things from happening was to stage a three-day fire dance. The villagers made a long dragon out of straw, covered it with lit incense sticks, and danced through the streets of Tai Hang for three days straight. It must have worked, because the bad luck stopped. Ever since then the event has been repeated annually for three days during the the Mid-Autumn Festival.
As world travelers, sometimes we plan on being in a certain place at a certain time to experience a particular festival or event, and sometimes it is just a serendipitous encounter. In this case, we had no idea the Mid-Autumn festival was going on nor had we ever heard of the Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance. We were very fortunate to get to experience this event.
The fire dragon itself consists of three main parts:
- Two “pearls” that lead or prompt the dragon. These are actually a pomelo on the end of a carrying pole that have been inserted with sticks of incense
- The head is a rattan frame covered with straw inserted with sticks of incense. A couple of torches form the eyes and metal teeth are added.
- The body is 67 meters long (220 feet) and is made of a thick hemp rope covered with straw and inserted with incense sticks. Poles are inserted for the many handlers to control the dragon.
We arrived early enough to be about 3 rows of people deep in the street, not too bad. By the time the ceremony actually started the sidewalks were completely full, about 8 rows deep.
When we arrived there was a drumming group playing for the crowd. Every once in a while, they would switch out drummers and move the drumming platform up or down the street a little. About 15 minutes before scheduled show time a group of girls walked up and down the street carrying lanterns in the shape of flowers. These were real lanterns too! With real fire! OSHA would not approve! The girls were very cute and seemed to enjoy posing for the crowd.
Next a group of young people holding lanterns marched down the street followed by people carrying a large banner that said, “Tai Hang Fire Dance” in English and Cantonese. The kids with the lanterns stopped right in front of us. Great, now I had a lantern blocking my view of the street! Just then, in the air you could hear…….bagpipes. Because nothing says Chinese Fire Dragon Dance like bagpipes???? This did seem a little out of place to me, but sure enough, soon a group of highland dancers did a dance. None of them looked very Scottish to me. The good news was that when the dancers came by, the kids with the lanterns lifted the lanterns so that we could now see the street and the activities. Hooray!
A few minutes later we heard the roar of the crowd up the street and could tell that the dragon had arrived! The dragon goes through all streets that made up the old village of Tai Hang, so every once in a while, you could catch a glimpse of the dragon as it exited a side street and hit the main street again for a few seconds before disappearing down a side street. The dragon did pass directly in front of us a couple of times as it went back and forth through the side streets.
At the end of dance, the incense sticks were pulled from the dragon, all 72,000 of them I am told, and distributed to people in the crowd. We got a couple. I understand to get one means good luck.
The Tai Hang Dragon Dance runs three nights straddling the first full moon of the eighth lunar month. We happened to go on the actual night of the full moon, so it did feel kind of special. We had a great time and were happy to observe this custom.