Photo by Xtian Lozañes

Enter the Dragons (and Lions): The Dragon and Lion Dance Troupe of Sun Yat Sen High School

By joseph batcagan

“It’s like Dinagyang never ended”.

That was my first thought upon entering the Sun Yat Sen High School quadrangle one chilly Friday afternoon. It was a week after Dinagyang, so it’s safe to say that pounding drums were the last thing we were looking forward to be greeted with during that time.

Somehow, this was different, though. There seems to be a lot of insanely high box jumps, acrobatics, and high-risk acrobatics that were being done by the kids who were training here. Granted, many of them are kids ranging from their early teens to mid-20s. Still, don’t they have classes next week? What if someone gets thrown off from eight feet up and gets injured?

boy practicing on platform - Project Iloilo
Photo by Xtian Lozañes

Vincent Defensor, 16, is not worried; he and his fellow Lion Dancers have been doing these kinds of crazy routines for four-to-eight years already. I find it boggling that not a single one of them were injured during those times. “Bale martial arts ang ginakuhaan namon base sa lawas. Na-apply man na namon dira mo. (Martial arts is the base discipline we use for training our bodies. We can apply them to our performances, too)”, he says.

It can be really hard to describe how their Dragon and Lion Dance Troupe were practicing their routines up close. It’s “traditional” in the strictest sense of the noun, but the breakneck pace on how they do it belies its origins as an art form that has almost a millennia of history behind it.

James Andrew Go, the head trainer for the school’s Dragon and Lion Dance Troupe, confirms that that’s exactly the point of it all. “Nagtuon ako basic [training], pero akon ya nag-expand. Nagtuon guid ako para maitudlo sa ila advanced pa guid. Indi nga kung ano lang natun-an ko, amo ina ang ginatudlo ko. Ang mga ginatudlo ko is may mga ‘twist’ pa nga gamay (I studied basic training, but I expanded upon it. I studied further to teach advanced stuff to the trainees. It’s not like I only rely on what I studied. What I teach are routines that have a little “twist” behind them),he explains.

Lion & Dragon Dance Troupe of Sun Yat Sen - Project Iloilo
Photo by Xtian Lozañes

To be clear, it’s not just “any” training: Go was actually sent to China by his troupe a couple of years ago to learn from the masters, so to speak. “So, guinpadala ako sg troupe namon sa China to learn advanced Lion Dancing. So, amo na, natun-an ko ato, damo ako sg may natun-an nga techniques. So diri, somehow guinapa-apply ko sa mga students kag mga alumni nga ang natun-an ko didto, matun-an man nila (So, I was sent by our troupe to China to learn advanced Lion Dancing. So, that’s it, I studied, and I learned a lot of techniques. So here, I am able to somehow apply to our students and our alumni that what I learned from China, they can also learn, too), he said.

Nightly practices. Training expeditions to abroad. Those can seem to be a bit too much to bear for a school that has no stakes going for it other than putting out the best performance they can year after year. They have willingly taken on the burden, and they consider themselves one of the few who can be able to uphold it. “Chinese New Year is a once a year affair. The Philippine mainstream society is expecting us to lead this celebration. We always do our best to provide cultural contribution by presenting the best program and worthwhile activities we can come up with,” says Deputy School Administrator and Task Force Chinese New Year 2015 program director Boanerge Tan in an email interview we conducted with him sometime after our initial visit to Sun Yat Sen.

However, what is certainly most surprising is that even the performers themselves—mostly teenage boys and girls, and many of whom still have academics to juggle with by the start of the weekdays—willingly embrace the responsibility that was given to them by way of being the carriers of this cultural tradition by default. Defensor mentioned that it is the “expectations” of the Filipino-Chinese community they will be representing on this year’s Chinese New Year that they find themselves upping the ante of their performances. “So pareho kung kami man ang ga-host, bale dako na nga expectation. Law-ay man nga ikaw ang host, ang performance mo nubo-nubo. Kumbaga dapat close to perfect guid mo. Even though waay judge, you have to find it in yourself nga gusto mo guid ya mag-perform nami (So for instance we will be the hosts, everyone has high expectations for us. It’s embarrassing for us to be the host, and then give them a poor performance. It’s like we have to be close to perfect. Even though there won’t be judges, you have to find it in yourself to want to perform well),” he says.

Lionhead at Sun Yat Sen Iloilo - Project Iloilo
Photo by Xtian Lozañes

If there was one constant during the time we interviewed the people involved in this year’s Dragon and Lion Dance performance, it’s the word “passion” gets thrown around like a mantra of sorts. Jun-jun Sia, in particular, stands out not just because he is one of the people leading the Dragon Dance group, but because it is his age—31—that automatically puts him in the position of leadership within the group. He didn’t start out as a member of the troupe, though; he was playing for the school’s varsity basketball team during his teenage years. “Te, sa amon to ya nga time, ako guid lang isa ang nag-okey [sa imbitasyon sa grupo] kay gusto ko man bala exercise, mga amo na bala. Hasta sa ulihi nga gasige-sige ko nga nagadugay nga nagadugay, ang mga daan (namon nga upod), nagadula nga nagadula, hasta nga kami na lang kanday James nga nagkalabilin. Tapos recruit lang kami nga recruit sa iban nga alumni nga gusto mag-intra. Tapos sa mga high school [kids] nga gusto man mag-intra,” he says.

(During our time, I was the one who went along [with the invitation of the group] because I was looking to exercise, those sorts of things. Eventually, I continued and stayed with the program for many years, until one by one, my old team mates began to leave us, and it then went down to me and James. We then started recruiting from the alumni who wanted to join. And then we proceeded to recruit from the high school [kids] who wanted to join,)

For a “cultural program” like this to survive in the modern era, it should come as no surprise that the only way it can evolve is if gets passed on from one generation to another. Nelson So, one of the members of the Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chamber of Commerce and also one of the five men involved as “team leaders” for this troupe, remembers how the school had jumpstarted the whole program without any prompting; he was actually one of its first batch of performers during the mid-‘70s. “So ang Kung-Fu Club in Manila, nag-donate siya sa amon dragon [costume], two set [sic]. That’s the start of our dragon dance. So, at that time, medyo bug-at pa, and okey lang! We just come here, like them [he then gestured to the performers outside of the faculty’s office], practice, then nag-parade kami. Pagkatapos sige-sige na dayon kami continue… [to] perform,” he reminisces.

(So the Kung-Fu Club in Manila, they donated a two-set dragon costume to us. So, at the time, that thing was very heavy, but it’s okay! We just come here, like them, practice, and then we go on to the parade. After that, we just continued performing.)

drum stick and drums - Project Iloilo
Photo by Xtian Lozañes

Sun Yat Sen was the first school to start a Dragon and Lion Dance program. Of course, there were many Filipino-Chinese schools’ dragon dance troupe that popped up since, and So said he began noticing that they now have actual “competition” these days. But since he’s also running a business downtown, he says he completely understands how that element is inherent to its nature.

“Sa negosyo man bala, nga indi lang nga solo mo subong, pero may magwa guid na nga competitor. Indi ka na da mahulat, ah. Kilanlan ma-move forward ka na ang performance, malain naman sa ila (Just like in business where you find yourself acting solo, there will come a time when a competitor will come out. You don’t wait for them to act. You need to move forward with your performance, and they will change along with you),So stresses.

Nevertheless, it seems like they are committed on preserving the tradition they had started in the first place. When I broached the idea of how dancing can preserve the culture of the local Chinese community to Tan, he says, “Culture does not only include material but also non-material heritage which is embodied in social practices, community life, values, beliefs, and expressive forms such as language, arts, music, dance and poetry. Through the performances of our dancers, they are able to preserve the culture of the Chinese by passing this from one generation to generation. We try our best to use the Chinese dance movements to create original dances. Despite of [sic] having the temptation to make it look modern and popular to the point of being westernized, so that more people can appreciate, we try our best to preserving Chinese culture by always educating the youth about the history and imparting to them the cultural elements we have inherited from the previous generation.”

Defensor’s concerns are more immediate, though; he’s in it for the sake of performing, at least for the meantime. “Kung gustuhon mo, makaya mo guid ya. Kung indi ka, te indi ka eh. Kung makaya mo, te okey eh (If you really want to perform, then you can do it. If you can’t, then don’t. But if you’re up to it, then okay),” he says in a nonchalant manner.

I have to chuckle as he said this. Despite celebrating a tradition that is not observed by the rest of the Philippine mainstream yet, his answer is classic bahala na (come what may) swagger in all its glory. If there’s an indication that Filipino-Chinese are just as Filipino as you and I, then this is indubitable proof.

Joseph Batcagan is the editor and a writer for Project Iloilo.