BANGKOK, Jan 19 — You might have grown up thinking that lion dances or wǔshī, such an indispensable part of Chinese New Year, is an entirely Malaysian tradition.
Indeed, if the bloom of innocence still flushes your cheeks, you might think it’s unique to your hometown, be it Kampar or Muar or Kuching.
Part of growing is learning that there is a bigger world out there.
I have seen lion dances in Hong Kong and in Taipei. Humans standing atop the shoulders of other humans, partially hidden by a papier-mâché head and a long caped lined with ribbons of fake fur. In São Paulo. In Amsterdam. In Wellington.
Come Chinese New Year, lions dance everywhere in the world, in Chinatowns and beyond.
In Bangkok, most visitors will hit the Chinatown trek in Yaowarat where Thai Chinese have settled since 1782. Home to a large Teochew immigrant population, Yaowarat is a typical Chinatown in some ways (Chinese medicinal shops, seafood restaurants, temples) and uniquely Thai in other ways (the stream of iconic tuk tuk rickshaws).
And, of course, lion dance performances in the lead up and during Chinese New Year celebrations.
Yet the influence of Chinese immigrants in the Thai capital spreads far beyond the confines of Yaowarat.
Located west of Bangkok’s Chinatown, across the Chao Phraya River, is a two-hectare compound of former warehouses dating back to the time of King Rama IV (1851-1868).
This was the site of a 19th-century Sino-Siamese river port. There is even a Chinese shrine dedicated to Mazu, the goddess of the sea and protector of seagoing peoples. Its history and heritage reclaimed and preserved, this is Lhong 1919.
Today the space is home to modern design shops, galleries highlighting the works of young local artists and diverse eateries. Red lanterns and incense imbue Lhong 1919 with a festive Lunar New Year spirit.
But it all started in 1850, when the port was built by Phraya Phisansuppaphol as a steamship terminal — hence its original name Hou Chuan Lhong. By 1900, it was the headquarters for the Chinese Merchant Association with offices rented out to Bangkok’s Chinese diaspora.
There is a pier, of course, as Lhong 1919 is perched on the west bank of the river, though this isn’t officially opened to the public yet. Most visitors take a slow stroll along Soi Wat Thong Thammachart if they are already on the Thonburi side of the river; otherwise one can easily cross the river by boat from Si Phraya to Klongsan then walk the rest of the way.
We wander around, circling the grounds several times, discovering new details every time. Phisansuppaphol’s descendants, the Bisalputra family, have painstakingly restored the buildings which had been sold in 1919 after the post First World War recession (hence the year in its name).
The specific arrangement of three buildings — the Mazu shrine facing the river and two other conjoining buildings used as warehouses and offices – surrounding a courtyard is not by chance.
This is an old Chinese architectural style called San He Yuan, which according to feng shui, creates a connection between heaven and earth.
Along with brick and plaster, there is copious use of precious teak, with window and door murals capturing a long past era.
Look within the Mazu Shrine and you will observe three different wooden figures, brought over by boat from China when Hou Chuan Lhong was first built.
The trio are avatars of Mazu: the maiden who healed the ailing; the goddess who gave blessings for good fortune; and the Heavenly Empress, worshipped for her compassion.
Other signs of traditional Chinese culture abound. From a second-floor balustrade, a traditional Cantonese opera robe with eye-catching sequins hangs. The stunning display harks back to a time when venerable dà lǎo guān (opera artists) wore these sparkling costumes for performances during festivals.
It was a time of theatre and theatrics.
Of course, the tradition that is most identified with Chinese New Year is none other than the lion dance or cherd singto as it is known here. In Thai, “cherd” means to manipulate, such as one would a marionette, and “singto” is the lion.
No performance is more theatrical, leaving its audience, especially children, with wide-eyed wonder. These are Chinese Southern Lions or Nán Shī, hailing originally from Guangdong. Distinguished by their single horn (its Northern cousin has two), the lions re-enact the myth of fantastical creatures and of driving away evil spirits.
The bushy eyebrows, the incessant drumbeats, oh and its “teeth”, snapping up offerings of lettuce and mandarin oranges, “devouring” these treats with ease.
Visitors gather close to “feed” and touch the heads of the lions for good luck in the coming year.
As grown-ups, we know the wǔshī or cherd singto is but two men, one lion head and one lion tail. But here, in the heat of the moment, the cymbals and the climbing, the nod to the heavens, it is magic.
It is our childhood once again, albeit in another land. It is Chinese New Year once more.
248 Chiang Mai Rd, Khlong San, Bangkok, Thailand
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