Dressed in the red satin livery of the Chinese New Year, the giant costumed lion is an imposing sight. Moving in time to the clashing cymbals, it leaps atop two metre tall steel beams, pirouettes then plucks a giant bouquet of flowers from a waiting hand.
The crowd goes wild.
This is the lion dance, an ancient Chinese tradition intended to ward off evil and bring good luck for the Lunar New Year.
The traditional performance is popular with Chinese Cambodians based here who arrange for such performances to usher in the Lunar New Year’s festivities which start this Sunday and last for 15 days.
But while the percussion drives the spectacle as before, increasingly the face beneath the lion’s mask is not that of a Chinese Cambodian.
It could be the face of 29-year-old Khem Bunna, who joined the Teochew Association’s lion dance troupe 13 years ago.
Bunna is one of about 50 non-Chinese Cambodians in the 100-strong troupe. The rest of the troupe is ethnically Chinese. He is one of four troupe leaders, and he used to play the lion’s head – the most difficult part in the dance. His partner would hold on to his waist and look to him to set the rhythm. Together, the duo make the lion and move as one.
Atop those steel stilts, there can be no hesitation – even with foam cushions placed at the base, a fall can mean serious injury.
“The first time I did it, I was very scared, but if you are fearful you can never do it,” said Bunna, adding that his coach only allow him atop the steel beams after two years of training.
Like Bunna, many Cambodians here are attracted by the thrill of the acrobatics. Each night, as the troupe practises for the New Year performances, the fence outside the Teochew Association along Phnom Penh’s Street 13 is packed.
Khmer Cambodians stand shoulder-to-shoulder for a peek at the free spectacle. Some are so enthralled they join the troupe and end up on the other side of the fence.
Chai Han Wen, the head of the troupe from the Teochew Association, said most of their non-Chinese members join this way.
“This activity attracts the playful and rebellious – you need to have a wild streak in you to do something like this,” he said, adding that troupe membership is free.
Depending on how nimble and agile they are, newcomers either start on the drums and cymbals, or simple foot drills.
At the end, if they are good enough, might get picked for performances during the Chinese New Year.
Performers don’t get paid, but at the end of the festivities they receive a token hongbao (literally, red packet) with cash inside.
Members of the association told the Post a Chinese New Year lion dance performance could cost between $400 to $1,600, depending on the scale and how elaborate the performance is.
Most of the money goes back to the association, which also runs a Chinese temple and a school on its premises, said Han Wen.
“[The performers] don’t get paid, so the hongbao is a good encouragement for them,” Chai said.
But for Bunna and the rest of the troupe, it’s not about the money.
He said: “We do lion dance because of the atmosphere – it’s exciting, challenging, and you make a lot of friends.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Danson Cheong at [email protected]