Linda Ung: One of the Sydney Lion Dancers behind the mythical mask
Story by Michael Lu
For many, the rhythmic sound of crashing cymbals and fast-paced drumming mark the start of Lunar New year celebrations, but for Linda Ung and her crew of lion dancers, it’s a means of keeping pace during their ecstatic performances.
Growing up on sports and kung-fu flicks, Ung watched her martial arts role models act it out on the big screen, but it was her neighbour’s interest in kung-fu which encouraged her to practice in the arts herself.
“Coming from a Chinese background you just watch those movies, I think people who were a bit older than myself were inspired by Bruce Lee, but I was born in the 80s so I was inspired by both Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee,” she said.
“I wouldn’t say the movies were a direct influence, my neighbours were interested in sports and martial arts so I joined in with them and got started that way.”
Ung’s focus on southern Chinese dragon style kung-fu guided her towards practising lion dancing as a part of her training.
She naturally devoted most of her time to southern-style lion dancing, a style more driven by martial arts compared to its northern counterpart.
“The northern style comes from Peking Opera and the lion looks more like a shaggy dog, the drumming is different, the costume is different and it looks different, focusing more on performance, compared to the southern style which is more martial arts-based,” she said.
While lion dancing draws a big crowd, its loud and colourful performances are culturally symbolic, communicating stories through interpretive dance.
One such instance is the act of Choy Chang, translating directly as ‘eating the greens’ to which the lion overcomes obstacles in order to reap rewards.
“With lion dancing, there are a lot of protocols and it’s always centred around a story,” she explained.
“You usually see the lion eating lettuce or spitting out lettuce and other items like mandarins and oranges and that usually revolves around luck or good fortune.
If you come across an obstacle in life, you’re going to come across a lot of different emotions that you feel yourself and the lion is supposed to convey that as well.
While lion dancing comes from a significant cultural background, Ung believes the ambiguity of the lion motif allows it to resonate amongst everyone, regardless of cultural background.
“We’ve got a lot of kids that come to our club and join our club and when they look at it they don’t know what it is, they just see it as a cartoonish type character,” she said.
“When you look at lion dancing it’s universal, it’s such a mythical creature and it doesn’t really look Chinese in my opinion, we only associate it with Chinese culture because that’s what we’ve been told and we view it on TV.”
As universal as lion dancing is, Ung believes its evolution still grounds itself in tradition.
“Like any kind of art form, lion dancing evolves over time and has to adapt to different cultural contexts that are forming now,” she explains.
“There’s a massive Chinese diaspora that’s happened over the last hundred of years, and I think even though lion dancing has adapted to different types of cultures depending on where it lands in, it’s still managed to paint part the essence of its tradition.”