As Myanmar’s Chinese community celebrates their new year this month, Pamela Tan meets a member of a lion dance troupe who was saved by the Chinese tradition. Photos by Leo Jackson.

Head dancer Lwin Pyo Aung and his costume.

Lion dancing was an unlikely savior for Lwin Phyo Aung, a 25-year-old photographer who fell in with the wrong crowd nearly a decade ago.

He became addicted to prescription drugs and amphetamines, a habit that quickly began ruining his life until his “true friends” urged him to fight the addiction a year into it, he recalled, and take up sports instead.

A Yangon-born Sino-Burmese who was raised in Latha township, Lwin decided the agile movements of the lion dance were for him. It’s a two-man job, with the head of the lion controlling the mouth, ears and eyelids, and pouncing from side to side, incorporating the moves of Chinese martial arts.

In the dance, the ‘lion’ springs to life, almost surreally animated, and, according to Chinese beliefs, wards off evil spirits at the start of the lunar year. The lion’s head is said to bring vitality and longevity, while the tail sweeps away bad fortune and negative aspects of the previous year.

After years of rigorous training he now holds the lion’s head of Long De Chuan Ren Lion Dance and Kung Fu Association, one of the groups helping Myanmar’s sizeable Chinese community celebrate Chinese New Year this February—the Year of the Dog.

Myanmar’s gigantic northern neighbor has influenced its economy and politics for centuries. Overseas Chinese comprise some 3 percent–over 1.6 million people—of the country’s 52.9 million population.

Lwin Phyo Aung and his fellow dancer practicing.

This number, though, does not take into account Sino-Burmese, ethnic Chinese who have registered as Burman to avoid historic prejudice or Chinese who have crossed the border illegally in northern Myanmar.

With the presence of this large community, the term “pauk-phaw” (fraternal) was coined in the 1950s to promote the tenets of peaceful co-existence. Yet the following decade saw anti-China protests in the then capital Rangoon (Yangon) in reaction to Chinese support for insurgent group the Burmese Communist Party (BCP) in the north, perceived by some as the Cultural Revolution crossing borders.

Bi-lateral relations have long recovered and anyone with Chinese heritage in Myanmar is likely to celebrate the new year with pride. People from China’s southeastern provinces of Fujian and Guangdong typically dwell in the lower part of Myanmar while Chinese in the north are mainly from southwestern province Yunnan.

Lwin, who has a Chinese grandfather, will perform with his group at Yangon’s Junction City from 6-9pm on February 7-11. Through meditation and martial arts—the fundamentals of lion dancing—he has learned to control his mind and use the dance as a form of relaxation.

“I only took up lion dancing so that I would become physically and mentally fit enough to stop using drugs,” he said, flashing a smile that exposed an absence of two front teeth lost when he fell off a poll during a performance. He continued regardless and later that year won a prize for his dancing.

Two dancers incorporating their dance moves to become one.

“From the outside you would think that lion dancing is only about practicing, but it’s definitely more than that. There is the method, the training, the courage to pull off the stunts, and the feeling that you acquire from all of that. You can only generally describe it, but there’s so much more to it.”

This passion for lion dancing has sustained Lwin—even when he fell ill, due to a sickness that he is unsure of, and only managed to perform one stunt at his last performance, during the 2014 Chinese New Year. He described his manager giving him a painkiller that it transpired he was allergic to, during the performance.

“The doctor told me that I was lucky I did not get a stroke,” he said. “I was required to rest for a while but I will be performing again this year.”

Lwin lamented a lack of state support for traditional Chinese dancing in Myanmar, saying that without it dancers cannot compete at an international level, no matter how hard they practice.

And Lwin practices hard; hours every day at the grounds of a high school in Chinatown, to ensure his routines reach near perfection in order to astonish the crowds this month.

Lunar New Year in Chinatown

Come the new year, Chinatown, which runs from Lanmadaw Road to Shwedagon Pagoda Road, will erupt in fireworks and celebrations as revelers wave goodbye to the rooster’s year and welcome the dog. Long De Chuan Ren Lion Dance and Kung Fu Association will perform from 6-10pm on February 17-21. Visit Keng Hok Temple on 426/432 Strand Road from 4am-midnight on Thursday, February 15 to pray for good health and wealth for the new year and then 12.15am-9pm on Friday, February 16.

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