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Posted by Sghoksan On 14:45

Brief History of Hok San Clan Association Lion Dance Troupe

Lion Dance has two schools – the northern and the southern schools. Historic records showed that it first appeared in the Tang Dynasty. It was solely performed in the palace for the pleasure and entertainment of the Emperor and his nobles. It is believed by most that the form practiced then should closely resemble that of the northern school of lion dance today. Southern school lion dance, most would agree, originated from the province of Guangdong in Southern China. Besides, a purely performing role, Southern lion dance has an activity that is unique to it alone and that is – 'plucking the gree' (采青)*. In Singapore, Southern school lion dance went a level higher when it combined with Cantonese Opera to act out a play on stage. Unfortunately this innovative breakthrough was overtaken by rapid social changes and development and lack support to further develop and ripen.

In 1920, Mr. Li Yisheng (李怡生) started the "Yi Yi Dang Lion Dance Troupe" (怡怡堂瑞狮团)in Singapore. Members were mostly his clansmen from the same Heshan** (鹤山) municipality in China. He taught the troupe himself and brought the technique and skill of the famous lion dance grandmaster, Feng Gengzhang, to the island republic. One of the major activities of the lion dance troupe then was visiting the ancestral burier ground for Cantonese in Singapore twice every year to pay respect to the forefathers. It also performed on festive and joyous occasions. This was the first lion dance troupe to appear on the Singapore scene and hence, attracted much attention and curiosity.

By 1939, the Hok San Clan Association was formed. Yi Yi Dang Lion Dance Troupe changed its name to the Hok San Clan Association Lion Dance Troupe promptly. The Japanese invasion in 1942 and the subsequent fall of Singapore on February 15 halted all activities. The Japanese surrendered in 1945 ending their notorious occupation. Singapore celebrated. A street parade was held and Hok San Association Lion Dance Troupe was invited to take part. Its lion dance performance, loud, imposing yet somewhat melodic drum tempos and cymbals ushered the joy of the return of peace into the heart of all who watched the parade. A picture of Hok San's lion in that parade is displayed in public in a war memorial in Sentosa island resort.

The return of peace in 1945 brought tremendous joy to the whole island. The feeling that good fortune have come back pervaded every corner of this tropical island. Hok San Association and the lion dance troupe resumed their activities immediately. The troupe was headed by Mr See Chun Weng, a dedicated and highly effective leader. The instructor for lion dance was Mr. Lü Xinyao(吕新尧), the disciple of Li Yisheng who was taught the art of lion dance by the grandmaster, Feng Gengzhang (冯庚长), himself. Lu Xinyao mastered the Cai (蔡家) school of martial art and was a well known martial art master of his time in Singapore.

Hok San Association elders and contemporaries of Master Lü Xinyao had said that the drumming tempo that the present day troupe members used in lion dance or drumming performance is an improvement composed by Master Lü. Thundering loud and imposing yet clear and melodic. It is excellent in creating the air of festivity and celebrative hilarity. Dancing in its tempo and beat, the lion's gallant and protective image shine out like an aura of righteousness eradicating all evils crossing its path. This drum tempo is being used by virtually all lion dance troupes in South East Asia today. Again from the same source, the appearances of the lion used in lion dance performance presently was revamped and improved upon at this period of time too. It was the combined effort of several elders. Improvements on the lion head included returning the slightly upturn lip to its 'natural state', thereby getting rid of the teeth bearing threatening look. The brows and hairs on the lips and below the jaw were changed from black to white, hence making the lion's look, august and stately yet not fear striking, calm yet commanding and emitting auspice and blissfulness. The body was reduced in length from the original 12 feet to 6 feet. Yellow and black stripes lined with white rabbit hair or animal hair look alike threads were sown on to the 'cloak' that would act as the lion's body. Performers wear similarly adorned pants and claw look alike shoes. Equipped with all these performing props, the lion's action and behaviour could be more convincingly replicate to an audience during performance.

When classes started it attracted many enthusiastic young men eager to learn Chinese martial art and lion dance. They were devoted to their pursue and under the expert guidance and teaching of an attainment master, many eventually became renowned master themselves and are well known to many who pursue this performing art until this day. One of them is Master Lui Yew Phan (吕耀斌). He was appointed a national judge for lion dance performing competition and served 3 tenures of office. Another is Master Leong Siew Foo (梁肇富). He began learning the art of lion dance at the age of 15 specialising in drumming skill and had never stopped practicing it for a single day. In a stage performance featuring artists from Korea and Japan in 1976, his performance in drumming 3 huge drums was so striking that he overshadowed the foreign artists. The press crowned him the King of South East Asia in drum performance the next day.

In 1949, Hok San Association celebrated its 10th anniversary. The lion dance troupe staged a series of public performances in New World Amusement Park. The performances were innovative and unique creations. Cantonese opera and lion dance combined on stage to act out a play whose story line was filled with colourful characters, heroic deeds and exploits. News of the performances attracted both the lovers of the 2 arts and the curious. Interest was so intense that on the nights of performance, police help was enlisted to keep order. Devotion, unrelenting training and the will to make it good by all troupe members gained approval and praises even from the harshest of critics.

A month later, another Cantonese-opera-lion-dance performance was staged again by Hok San Association. This time it was in aid of the fund raising campaign by the World Save the Children Fund. The management of New World Amusement Park and the Singapore press showered praises on the performance and bestowed the title: King of Lion Dance to Hok San Lion Dance Troupe.

For 1952 Chinese New Year, Hok San Lion Dance Troupe, as traditions dictated, had to conduct 'plucking the green' activities. When the troupe arrived at the China Town area, 2 very demanding and difficult to tackle 'plucking the green' situations were laid out to test the capability of Hok San Lion Dance Troupe. One was by another lion dance troupe and another by a Cantonese opera theater group. Hard training and determination again paid off, Hok San Lion Dance Troupe successfully cleared them with finesse. The reputation of the Hok San Troupe rose to unprecedented height and many clan associations aiming to start a lion dance troupe themselves sought for teachers among the troupe members of Hok San.

The next year, 1953, Shaw Brothers Organisation held a carnival in celebration of the last day of the Chinese New Year festive season in New World Amusement Park. Hok San Association Lion Dance Troupe was invited specially to take part. Many extremely difficult movements were danced out. Leaping up on a fence and moving along it with cat like agility. There were moments where the lion move with leisure and in a sudden a bust of action. So quick and so abrupt that it amazed all present. Such spectacular performances delighted the crowd so much that the clapping of hands went on for minutes. The climax came when the Hok San Lion performed 'plucking the green' where the 'treasure' was suspended high up above the ground. With finesse, the task was done. A calligrapher among the crowd was so moved that he immediately presented Hok San Lion Dance Troupe with the 4 characters: "狮王之王" (King of Kings in lion Dance). From then on till today, this title became associated permanently with the Hok San Lion Dance Troupe.

Singapore Hok San Association led a delegation together with the lion dance troupe back to Heshan Municipality in China in March 1999. Heshan is the home prefecture where all the forefathers who foundered the Clan Association in Singapore came from. So in a way it was like a trip returning 'home'. Performances by the lion dance troupe were staged in a sport stadium on March 3rd. It included drum and flag performances besides lion dance. A 3rd generation disciple of Grand Master Feng Gengzhang remarked that he felt very happy that the art of the grand master had flourished in a land afar. He felt very close to the Hok San troupe as both are heirs to a great master’s skill, to a great tradition and a unique performing art.

*Plucking the Green is a performance where the lion came across a 'situation' where it is compelled to overcome obstacles, dismantle traps and eradicate powerful guarding elements to finally acquire the 'treasures'. The 'situation' is laid out by the party inviting the lion dance troupe to perform. The whole process of getting the 'treasures' performed has to answer to traditions, rites and rituals, historic practices and 'reasons' commonly agreed upon by all in the lion dance circle. It is a test to the performers' skill, techniques and physical ability and the troupe's creativity, knowledge and attainment in lion dance performance. Mostly, Plucking the Green is performed on festive seasons and joyous occasions like Chinese New Year, new business commencement, important events and places openings, etc.

**Heshan and Hok San are both names of the same prefecture. Heshan is the Pinyin spelling whereas Hok San is a transliteration according to Cantonese pronunciation.

Synopsis on Heshan Municipality in China

Heshan (鹤山) was decreed as a prefecture in the 10th year (1732) of the reign of Yong Zheng, the 3rd emperor of the Qing (Manchurian) Dynasty. By 1993, its administrative status was raised to that of a municipality. Its name which means 'Mount Crane' literally, was given to it because of a mountain within its boundary that closely resembles the shape of that bird. Situated about 60km south west of the provincial capital of Guangdong province, Guangzhou, it occupies a strategic location on the Pearl River Delta, commanding the northern gateway to Jiangmen's 5 prefectures. Along the opposite bank of the same river, lies the 2 municipalities of Nanhai and Shunde. It would take more than an hour approximately to get to Hong Kong or Macau from Heshan by road. 3000 ton vessels could dock at Heshan's harbour. Ships ply from here to Hong Kong directly. The total land area of Heshan is 1108.3 sq km and its local population is 360000. If the non local are included, it would be around 550000 persons residing within its border. People of Heshan origin or descent living in other parts of the world would also amount to around 360000. Heshan Municipality administers 11 towns. They are Yayao (雅瑶), Gulao (古劳), Longkou (龙口), Taoyuan (桃源), Hecheng (鹤城), Gonghe (共和), Zhishan (址山), Yunxiang (运乡), Shuanghe (双河), Zaiwu (宅悟) and Shaping (沙坪).

The 3rd conference of the 13th People's Congress of Heshan Municipality was held at Heshan Theatre. The mayor, Mr Huang Guohua, on behalf of the municipal government presented to the People's Congress the work progress report of the Heshan municipal government. He told the People's Congress that in the year 2007, the municipality had successfully achieved the objectives and tasks delegated to it by the 2nd conference of the 13th People's Congress. It had put into effect the scientific approach to development and had achieved, as dictated as the overall aim, a good start. Heshan had been changed into a modern, scenic and garden like municipality.

In that same report too, 2008 is pointed out as an important year for the municipality to put into effect the directive of the 17th Party Congress and that is to push forward with scientific approach to development and to build a harmonious society. In this year to attain the pre-set objective of both social and economic progress for Heshan, effort needed to be focus on 6 areas of work. They are:

a. Based on the latest wave of thoughts liberlisation economic development that are faster and more rewarding should be pushed ahead;
b. With good infrastructure as the basis the pace to build a modern, scenic and garden like municipality would be speeded up;
c. With the objective of increasing the income of the farming community, works to build a new socialism farming community should be widen and amplified;
d. Pivoting on the objective of improving citizens’ livelihood, more effort should be put in to press forward with the building of a harmonious society;
e. Using the establishment of spiritual civilization as the anchor point build co-ordination and complementing development paths between different aspect of works and developments;
f. With the objective of establishing a clean and pragmatic government, efficiency of the municipal administration should be further improved.

Translation of text extracted from 鹤邑海外联谊会出版联谊之声第15期