Hong Kong’s tiny Tai Hang district is usually one of the city’s quietest quarters. But every year during Mid-Autumn Festival—a mythological holiday celebrating the moon and harvest—the neighborhood comes alive with thumping drums, swirling incense, and a 67-foot-long dancing dragon.
Inscribed to China’s national list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2011, the Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance began in 1880, back when the now-inland neighborhood (due to land reclamation) was still a fishing village on the coast. According to legend, a plague besieged the Hakka community and a soothsayer suggested the villagers perform a dragon dance with firecrackers and incense to dispel the contagion. To this day, the dragon dance continues to be a highlight of Mid-Autumn Festival.
Hong Kong’s 2017 parade takes place from October 3-6, (the eighth Lunar month on the Chinese calendar). Though it’s traditionally a three-day affair, the festival will be extended to four days to mark Hong Kong’s 20th anniversary as a Special Administrative Region of China.
Dragon dance commander-in-chief Chan Tak-fai, who has been officiating the event for the past 20 years, first got involved as a child. “I grew up watching all the elder makers—there were three on Sun Chun Street where I lived—create the fire dragon every year. I was able to learn and later teach young Tai Hangers,” says Tak-fai, now 70. “Back then, we always gathered in the street as there was no air-conditioning and it was cooler [outside]. That created a great sense of community.”
To prepare for the annual festival, the residents craft a new dragon each year. During a two-day process, they weave together hemp rope, pearl straw, and bamboo to form the body, then lace the spine with thousands of incense sticks. Even with poles attached to the underbelly, it’s not easy to handle the 220-pound dragon. The dance requires 300 Tai Hang residents—both current and former—to carry the creature’s 32 sections.
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