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‘One dragon, one heart’: how Hong Kong dragon dance team develops a sense of belonging while igniting community spirit

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Eight hundred giant lanterns, some shaped as rabbits and goldfish, dangle above Lee Tung Avenue in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai district.

The colourful display is part of “Moon Fest Lumiere”, a Mid-Autumn Festival celebration that runs until October 23 with a highlight taking place on September 29: a glowing LED dragon that will dance its way from the avenue through nearby streets on a one-hour journey.

In Chinese culture, the dragon symbolises wisdom and wealth and is believed to bring good luck.

Hongkongers Andy Kwok Man-lung and Hu Ching-ham will take part in the dragon dance, a tradition dating back to the Han dynasty (206BC-AD220).

Andy Kwok (left), head coach and choreographer of Kwok’s Kungfu and Dragon Lion Dance Team, and team member Hu Ching-ham in Wan Chai on September 13, 2023. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

At a coffee shop overlooking Lee Tung Avenue, the pair talk passionately about their shared love of dragon dance, which mixes martial arts, performance and dance moves and, like lion dance, is performed during important cultural celebrations.

“It’s a rich tradition that’s a fun way to stay active and boost confidence,” says Kwok, the head coach and choreographer of Kwok’s Kungfu and Dragon Lion Dance Team.

While a dragon’s size depends on the available manpower – the world record for the longest dragon is 5,605 metres (18,390 feet), set in Hong Kong on October 1, 2012 – for this event, the LED-lit beast will stretch 18 metres and be manoeuvred by a 10-man team.

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To perfect a performance, timing and teamwork are crucial, Kwok says.

“If someone moves too fast or too slow, it will affect the entire performance and could lead to a mistake,” says the 49-year-old, who has travelled from Malaysia to Taiwan to take part in dragon dance competitions.

“It’s important to work together … we are like family,” he says. “We have a saying: ‘One dragon, one heart.’”

The LED dragon will be manoeuvred by a 10-man team. Photo: Lee Tung Avenue

Kwok pulls out his phone to show a team performance.

It’s a high-energy display, with participants – long flexible sticks in hand – manipulating the dragon like a puppet, twirling and jumping up and down performing moves known as “cloud cave”, “whirlpool” and “threading the money”.

Like a dizzying gymnastics routine, some team members perform somersaults and handstands while others jump on their teammates’ shoulders, all while wearing full costume.

I enjoy the community element, how the dance brings people together to celebrate – it makes people happy, and that makes me happy

Andy Kwok, head coach, Kwok’s Kungfu and Dragon Lion Dance Team

It’s easy to see why it’s a good workout – and why mastering some moves can take years.

“Dragon dancing is a good way to keep fit,” says 16-year-old Hu, the team’s youngest member, who started dragon dancing aged just 10. “It also teaches discipline and respect.”

Another bonus is the sense of community.

“We absorb the energy from the people in our team and from the people around us when we dance in public because we get to perform very close to people,” Kwok says.

“I enjoy the community element, how the dance brings people together to celebrate – it makes people happy, and that makes me happy.”

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Studies have found that being part of a supportive community and forming social connections not only provides people with a sense of belonging, but leads to better mental and physical health.

Carol Liang, deputy chief executive of mental health charity Mind HK, says getting involved in a meaningful community can have a profound and positive influence on one’s well-being.

“Engaging with a supportive network offers numerous benefits, including the reduction of stress and the cultivation of a sense of belonging,” Liang says.

“Close community ties can aid individuals in navigating life’s challenges, managing symptoms of mental health issues and improving overall well-being.”

Carol Liang is deputy chief executive of mental health charity Mind HK. Photo: Mind HK

From a public-health standpoint, Liang says developing and maintaining strong, quality interpersonal relationships are paramount in both preventing mental health conditions and enhancing care if support from a clinical professional has already become necessary.

“The importance of being part of a robust, healthy and purposeful community to our mental health has become increasingly evident. It’s not just a value-add, but a fundamental pillar of mental well-being.”

Volunteers clean up after flooding inside an MTR station caused by record-breaking rainfall in Hong Kong, on September 8, 2023. Photo: TNS

Volunteers gathered to clear roads and clean up homes and public places, while others launched fundraising campaigns.

Carmel Armstrong, chief operating officer of the Love 21 Foundation, a charity for children and adults with autism and Down’s syndrome, saw the power of community in action after a fire in January destroyed the foundation’s 50,000-square-foot (4,645-square-metre) centre in San Po Kong, in Kowloon.

“The space was used for sports and art activities, counselling sessions, and nutrition programmes,” Armstrong says.

Love 21 Foundation chief operating officer Carmel Armstrong at the site of the foundation’s destroyed centre on February 9, 2023. Photo: Edmond So

She adds it was fortunate the fire, which spread from a neighbouring warehouse, happened just after 5am when the centre, a second home to children and adults from more than 350 families, was empty.

A major problem, she recalls, was clearing water from the ninth floor. The community played its part, she says, not just to raise funds but in cleaning the old site and building a new one.

“People showed up with buckets, brushes and dustpans – it was incredible,” says Armstrong, adding people also donated items such as sofas and glass doors to be upcycled for use in the foundation’s new space.

“It was very emotional to witness so many members of the community come together and help.”

Donations to Love 21 Foundation can be made at love21foundation.com/donate

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