Posts in Traditional Southern Lion

Ace in the Hole

Huang Zhong and Ace

The other day I was lucky enough to have fellow lion restoration artist Ryan Au and UCLA ACA Lion Dance team member Andy Ta come over for a visit after dinner. On their previous visit we were able to spend a couple of hours talking about the art of lion building, discussing techniques and sharing issues. Ryan blogged about it on his own Lionblogs website. Check it out and show him some love.

This time around we were getting together for the sole purpose of celebrating the completion of Ryan's latest project, the restoration of a Liu Bei lion named Ace for the Southern Young Tigers, a lion dance team based at UC Irvine. Being a full-time student, it's taken Ryan several years to complete the job which was a complete restoration similar to the project I was working on when I started this blog. He needed to strip the old lion down, repair the frame and build it all back up again. His work is all documented on his website so I won't repeat it here. What I do want to do here is take a closer look at some of the features Ryan built into Ace and give you some food for thought as you consider how you want your own lions to look.

Click any picture for a larger version.

Ace Side View The first thing I noticed was Ace was super shiny. There are many different finishing products you can use after you paint a lion and the level of glossiness is a personal preference issue. It's best to experiment with products from different companies and even different finishes from the same company to see which will give you the results you want. I really like the hihg-gloss finish that makes the painting seem all the more bold and brilliant.

From this side view you can also see that while most of the lion's main hair is traditional bristle, the lower eye lashes under the eye are rabbit fur instead. By using a type of fur with a shorter pile not as much of the painting patterns get hidden underneath. It also gives the lion's look a bit of variety to keep things interesting.

Ace Soy Moving back along Ace's side we come to the soy are and find a double soy each with it's own shape of fins and a red side ball. It's different than the double soy Lo An Kee made so it's interesting to see how different lion makers build the same features in different ways. You can also see the metal discs glued on and incorporated into the painting pattern. Many times these discs are glued on haphazardly with no rhyme or reason so it's nice to see some thought put into this. Ryan says there are over 200 discs on Ace. They're slightly smaller than normal which allows them to blend into the pattern better than large ones which tend to stick out and call attention to themselves. I would've liked to have seen pompoms attached to the triangular fins of the inner soy as well, but costs can be prohibitive and it's a minor thing.

Ace ear Taking a closer look at Ace's ear you can see that instead of leaving the rabbit fur strips plain Ryan added a layer of gold trim. The thicker, 1/2" gimp trim really makes the gold shimmer and creates a good transition border between the fur and the painting.

Ace Balls I really like the colors on Ace's hero balls (pompoms), they pull from the colors used on the painting and are a deep rich color that photos just don't do justice to. You'll have to see them up close in person to really appreciate them. Ryan also did a great job on the many background blends, orange, pink and green ones are visible here.

Ace Andy and Ryan Here's a nice shot of Andy and Ryan demonstrating stances and movements with the lions. Ace is sporting a really long silky white beard. In traditional lion design the color and length of the beard indicates the age and maturity of the lion. In this case it's very fitting for a Liu Bei lion to have a beard befitting his age and wisdom as the first emperor of China.


Andy has his own lion project going on as well so next year I want to see three lions in this picture!


Let me know what you think by commenting below or drop me an email:, I appreciate it!

Two More Mouths to Feed


Well, it's been almost a month and I haven't made any progress on the frames I mentioned in my last blog post, but I did make the mouths for them just so I could report some progress. The mouth is actually a pretty easy part to make and only requires an hour or so. It is a fun area to work on though because it requires a little more skill and challenge than just binding bamboo together.

Splitting Bamboo You get to feel like a lumberjack splitting wood! Well, maybe not quite, but you do start with a strip of bamboo twice the width of a standard framing strip and end up splitting each end into two legs. This makes the mouth base a unified piece while allowing the shape to be more complex than it otherwise could be. One set of legs gets turned into the main curve of the mouth shape and the other set becomes the "wings" on either side.

Using Fire to Bend the Bamboo And you get to play with fire! Knives and fire and building lions?!? Yay! Can this project have any more of my favorite things? (Note: please use all of the aforementioned things responsibly, I am not liable for any injuries if you try this at home.) Getting the right angle for the corner of the mouth requires softening up the bamboo to make it pliable enough to bend like that. Heating it up with a small candle flame is the perfect solution to do just that. Even with the use of heat, bend it slowly and carefully being sure not to break the bamboo or else the whole piece will be ruined. Also be sure to keep the piece moving around when bringing it close to the flame to keep it from catching on fire. A little scorching is normal and won't affect the strength of the corner too much.


Scorched Corner Mouth Base


Finished Mouth Frame

Add a few more pieces, then wrap the corners with rattan, and voila! There you have a brand new mouth, all ready for papering, painting and decorating. This probably feels like those cooking shows that show you all of the ingredients and then pull a fully-cooked dish out of the oven. I had planned on photographing each step but then I got caught up in the building process and forgot all about it. Next thing you know I'm looking at two fully completed mouths and only have pictures of the beginning steps of one of them. Sorry about that. Hopefully it's enough for you to understand the process and gives you a good idea for how to proceed with your own project.

Thanks for tuning in, if you're interested in more detailed instructions, including a full set of measurements and illustrated diagrams, check out the soon-to-be-released Lion Construction Manual! I'm working hard to get it done by Chinese New Year, 2014 (January 31) and building these two little lions at the same time. Wish me luck!

Are you working on a lion or dragon project of your own? I'd love to talk shop and see what others are doing, drop me an email: and let me know what you're up to, thanks! And if you need help finding parts and supplies, be sure to visit the all new

Back in a Bind Again

The lion dance is in my blood so even though I'm on sabbatical from performing I've still got a lot of projects to keep me busy and involved in the community. Since I am a family man as well, building lions for my kids is the perfect way to combine two of the most important things in my life. Unfortunately having kids leaves little time for lion building so even though I plan the projects out, actually getting them done is a really long process with huge gaps of time interrupting progress on them.

Son1's LiuBei Lion For instance, my first son was born almost 10 years ago and it took me over 2 years to build his lion. You can read more about it and see some close-up shots here.

Daughter's Frame By the time I finished that lion it was almost time for my daughter to be born and I started on her lion. And what you see here is still how it looks today. That's seven years worth of work you're looking at, baby.

Daughter's Frame Fast forward a few more years and number 2 son was on his way into the world. I was working on the Lo An Kee restoration at the time so I didn't actually start building his before birth like the other kids', but I did buy some supplies and start to plan it out. That was a year and a half ago and what you see over there is how far I've gotten since finishing the restoration about a year ago. Most of that amazing progress has happened in the past few days.

So now that I've cleared some other projects off of my schedule I'm ready to buckle down and start working on these two frames again! It feels good to dust off the work bench and start bending and binding again. As with my first son's lion you can see I'm using aluminum for the base and main framing sections of the lion. Kids aren't exactly known for being careful with their things so I figured some extra strong material was in order for their lions. What I learn about using different materials for their frames can be applied to building stronger and better full-sized lions as well.

The reverse is also true, what I learned restoring the Lo An Kee lion has helped me advance in skill and understanding and will definitely come in handy with these two builds. My plan is to start to get the ball rolling but still keep a realistic time frame considering my other obligations. Getting the frames done by the end of the year would be great and hopefully not too lofty of a goal. I'll keep my progress posted here, keep checking back if you're interested, thanks!

Let me know what you think by commenting below or dropping me an email:, I appreciate it!

Positively Glowing!

As we begin 2013 in the West, the Year of the Water Snake (4711) is rapidly approaching. Along with that will be lots of lion dance performances, including many at night or in other low-light conditions. So how do you make sure your lions are ready? By installing lights of course!

"Bright eyes" is a common expression to describe someone full of life and that's exactly the image we want lions to portray. In Chinese one term for the Southern Lion is "Sing Si" or "Awakened Lion" so anything that helps the lion look awake and alert is a good thing. Lights in the eyes really bring attention to the lions, especially in a darkened room or at an evening performance outdoors.

Original Eyes and Lights Here's a shot of the original setup to light the lion's eyes. You can see it was fitted with standard flashlight incandescant bulbs which would be hooked up to a switch and several batteries.

At the time the lion was originally built this was a great solution and worked well for many years. However there were several drawbacks to using it. The main one is that incandescant bulbs tend to use a lot of power so we would drain several sets of batteries over the course of our New Years performances. I remember our group coordinators getting after us to, "Remember to turn off the lights!" after every performance. You could always add more batteries or use a larger size (we had lions that used everything from AA to a couple of D cell batteries) but this would add significant weight to the lions.

New LED Bulbs and Fittings For the restoration I wanted to keep the weight down as much as possible. After researching online and asking other experienced people on the Lion Dance Forum I came up with a design I believe is one of the best in use today in terms of weight, light output, ease of installing and durability. I went with LED lights which use energy much more efficiently and reflective chrome lamp holders. Because of the greater energy efficiency and higher reflectivity I could get away with a minimal number and smaller sized batteries while actually over doubling the amount of light output compared to the original lights. To keep the bulbs from burning out prematurely each bulb is protected by an electrical resistor to regulate the current flowing through them.

Since installing them and showing them off I've actually gotten requests to build and sell light sets to other groups and have sold a dozen or so. I never thought there was much of a market for things like this, but what a nice confirmation that the work I put into researching, designing and building them is recognized and appreciated by others and also that my work is going on to help other groups as they help spread the art.

Glowing Eyes I'm watching you!

Here's the final result. What do you think? Feel free to comment below or drop me an email:, I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Reunited and it Feels So Good

A private collector from Southern California expressed interest in the tail and he had a traditional Liu Bei head that it would match well with it so I met up with him and a friend one Sunday afternoon.

As we unpacked the tail and spread it out for them to inspect we talked shop about different tails we've seen over the years and compared similarities and differences with this tail. The head he had matched colors nearly perfectly as you can see in these shots of the front and back.

front back

Although I'll miss the tail I'm glad to know that it's part of a whole lion once again, and even better it'll be used in actual performances, not just stuck collecting dust in a museum or stuffed in a box forgotten somewhere. What a great ending to this tail's story!

Chasing a Tail

As I was browsing eBay for interesting things I came across a listing for a "~~CHINESE Ancient Art RARE Handmade Ceremonial Pagent Satin LION DANCING ROBE~~" and lo and behold the picture wasn't of a robe at all but a vintage tail for a Liu Bei lion. From the pictures it appeared to be in great condition, especially considering its age. The description was a bit odd, but I was intrigued--what was the story of this tail? Where was the head? What group did it come from? What maker? So I contacted the lister to find out what I could.

The lister had bought it at an auction and only knew that it came from a group who had used it in the Seattle Seafair Parade so that really didn't tell me much. My passion for lion restoration was ignited however and I began to wonder about the possibility of reuniting this tail with an old head so it could be properly seen as it was meant to be.

I knew of several lion heads on display in museums around the country that are displayed without tails: (none of these pictures were taken by me):

Wing Luke Store Private Chinese Historical Museum This lion is in the collection of the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle. This lion was rescued from a trash bin in Los Angeles' Chinatown. A rare traditional Hok San lion made by Lo An Kee. This lion is currently on display at the Chinese Historical Museum in San Diego.

The asking price of $299 was out of my league though, especially for a tail without a head and considering that a majority of the craftsmanship and value is in the head not the tail. Luckily the lister was open to bargaining and I was able to purchase it for less.

When the package arrived and I was able to inspect it further I found it was in great condition, almost appearing unused. There was no staining, even on the white undercloth where the tail player's sweat usually leaves tell-tale black marks and on the white rabbit fur along the bottom edges that are among the first areas to soil. On a close inspection I ohnly found one are that was slightly tattered, one small metal disc missing and a couple of metal discs that were bent. Other than that everything was intact. One sort of disappointing thing was the description listed it as 15 feet long which would make it really traditional and probably pre 1960s, but when I measured it came out to only 10 feet which was more common from the 70s to 80s. I think the lister didn't know how to measure it and included the back part that drapes down in her calculation. You could also tell the tail had been in storage for a while because of the wrinkles and how some of the triangles didn't lay flat anymore due to the way it had been folded.

There were also some other interesting things I noticed:

Large Discs Loops Ties Bells All of the discs are gold color, instead of the more common silver used today. The three large discs on the top pink layer were not evenly spaced, I'm not sure if it was meant to be like that or if one fell off and was sewn back on in the wrong place. A series of nylon web loops were sewn down the back of the lion. Obviously a much later addition, it looked like something put on to attach the tail to a pole or tie strings on to hang it for display. On the bottom there were ties sewn in directly under the loops and some additional pieces of nylon webbing. Very curious what these were added for. Under every other triangle brass bells were sewn in. These are usually missing from modern tails but were an important part of the lion's ability to frighten away evil as the sound of bells are said to scatter the spirtis.

All in all it was a rare find and it was great to see it up close and personal. Many lion dancers these days have never gotten to see a tail like this and it brought back may good memories of dancing under the long traditional tails. Hopefully soon I'll be able to post some pictures of it reunited with an old head and people can really see what things looked like "back in the day."


Who's in the House? Zhang Fei's in the House! Well, I'm pretty sure it's him…

Recently this picture showed up online in a group I participate in on Facebook and it sparked a lively little debate. The original poster was wondering who (which historical general, if any) the lion represented and the answer, according to the lion maker, is Zhang Fei. This made a few people pause a bit because there is a lot of blue and not so much green used on the lion. What does that matter, you might ask. As I mentioned in a previous post, the colors of traditional lions are determined by the colors of the face paint of that general as portrayed in the Cantonese opera. For Zhang Fei this has always been black and white (and/or gray) with black hair and beard. Touches of green are often used as accents.

Here are some examples (all were found online, none of these pictures were taken by me):

Zhang Fei Example Zhang Fei Example Zhang Fei Example Zhang Fei Example Zhang Fei Example Zhang Fei Example Zhang Fei Example Zhang Fei Example Zhang Fei Example Zhang Fei Example Zhang Fei Example Zhang Fei Example

As you can see from the other pictures above there is a lot of room for variation even when using the original color scheme. So without a compelling reason to deviate from the tradition, it would be unnecessary to change the overall color pallette for traditional lions. There is even precedent on the Zhang Fei lions to use blue (usually on the eyelids) sparingly as a supporting color, but not a main color.

Although the first picture above is what sparked the debate, it really isn't just about that lion.

At the heart of the debate are questions about the evolution of traditions and the validity of artistic license. Art forms are constantly changing and subject to reinterpretation according to the visions of individual artists. At the same time if there are no overarching guidelines then the results are often unrecognizable bastardizations of the originals. How many times have we sat through a horrible remake of a classic film that completely missed the mark of the original?

So what place do ancient traditions play in modern society? How do we as artists express our individuality while still remaining true to the customs that have been handed down through the generations? Can we disregard the teachings of our lineage and claim artistic differences? Are modern aesthetics more important than historical precedents? These are not easy questions to answer and there are no clear cut lines dividing the camps.

For me, as a performing artist, there are at least two major criteria I would use before changing a standing tradition. 1) Is there a compelling reason for the tradition that would be violated by the change? And 2) Would the intended audience still understand what is being conveyed?

Like it or not, traditions started and became engrained for a reason; sometimes a good reason, sometimes a more questionable one. Arbitrary, superstitious and no longer relevant practices can be disregarded as we pare an art form down to its essentials. For example the Chinese tradition that says women shouldn't bathe for a week after giving birth was most likely started at a time when river water posed a greater threat of parasites and other illnesses than not bathing. We've luckily advanced as a society to where we can end this practice. We always want to make sure we aren't just blindly holding onto the past without basis. However we also have to recognize that there might be a reason we are not aware of. We need to do our due diligence and consult with others who can give guidance on this rather than just trusting our own, often limited, judgment.

As for the second criterion, the whole reason we perform is not for ourselves but for the audience, whether that's a merchant that's hired our team to bless their business, a couple celebrating their marriage, or the viewers at an exhibition performance. An actor could give the most inspired performance in the history of the stage, but if there is a disconnect with the audience it will all be in vain. So as performers we want to make sure every aspect of our presentation gets our intended message across. In terms of the lion dance, there are several things that a knowledgeable audience would expect to see. As a specific example, let's apply these to the lion pictured above. What are the reasons for the traditional colors of Zhang Fei? Black hair and beard to signify his youth, and black markings on his face to portray his dark complexion. In the Cantonese Opera, each of the Five Tiger Generals was assigned his own color(s) to differentiate him from other characters and make him consistently and easily recognizable even among different acting troops and from play to play. Every actor/troop could apply the makeup in their own style, but all used the same color schemes. Major deviations were liable to cause confusion among an often illiterate audience who relied on visual cues to follow the action.

But is this outdated? Would a modern audience know enough to recognize Zhang Fei in a slightly different color scheme? Given the right context, i.e. sitting next to the other 4 Tiger Generals, an informed audience would probably be able to figure out who was who. Also, given that many people don't know enough about the lions or the generals they represent beyond the main three (Liu Bei, Guan Gung and Zhang Fei) by process of elimination most would probably guess that this was Zhang Fei anyway. But if it appears by itself and even people in the know need to ask who it is supposed to represent, it might indicate that the artist should have stuck a little closer to tradition.

So the jury is still out. Personally I really like this lion. It has the fierce look of a traditional general and it has touches that make it stand out from the usual slew of lions. But whether or not I would consider it a good representation of Zhang Fei is debatable.

As a final bit of food for thought, here is a picture of an opera troop portraying Zhang Fei with a blue headdress:

Want to weigh in on the issue? Feel free to comment below or drop me an email:, I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Lion Under Glass

Quick Update: Exhibit will be taken down April 7, go see it before it's too late!
Nestled in the Asian/Pacific Thematic Historic District of San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter is a great little museum. The Chinese Historical Museum is comprised of two buildings on opposite corners of Third and J. The original building used to be a mission building built in the 1920s to be an outreach and community center to the Chinese in San Diego at the time. Behind this building is a small Asian garden and fish pond.

Across the street the rotating exhibits are housed in the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Extension. Just in time for the Chinese New Year (February 23 this year) a new exhibit opened featuring traditional new year prints, a small collection of tiger hats, a performance dragon, and a late entry to the lineup: the restored lion.

The curator, Alex Chuang, was kind enough to allow me to display the lion and as we emailed back and forth about the details the plan grew until I had to borrow a minivan to take all of the components down south. I'm glad Alex had the foresight to ask probing questions about how to go from, "Hi, I have something people might like to see" to a real museum-quality display.

Between the Hoi Gung ceremony and the museum display there was only a week to prepare everything including deciding what to display, how to arrange it, and all the signs to create. Good thing my wife and I love a challenge and work well under pressure.

So, here's what we came up with. Let me know what you think and if you get a chance, go see it in person. Pictures just don't convey the same scope as seeing it in real life.
Click any picture for a larger version.

Practice Setup Signage Setup Hanging the Poster Helpers Setting Up Rejected Items
Playing around with possible layouts at home. It was fun trying to come up with a way to fit everything into the space requirement without it looking crowded. I was also trying to come up with some sort of order so the display would take the viewers through a logical progression of the project. Coming up with signage that would be interesting to both lion dancers who know their stuff and the general public was a bit of a challenge. Good thing my wife is an excellent editor! Figuring out where to place each sign in the display presented other issues as well. I also decided to reuse the poster we made for the Beyond the Pride exhibit. Even though it says, "There's still more work to be done" in big red letters on the bottom, it gives a good background on the project and has a lot of information on the process so I thought it'd still be relevant. Besides it'd be a shame to have made a poster like that only to be used once! I recruited my kids to help arrange the displays so setting them up at the museum was a real family affair. These didn't actually make the cut for the final display, but my daughter thought she'd bring them along anyway.
First Display Case Second Display Case Third Display Case, Front Third Display Case, Back Closing the Case
The main display case is right at the entrance to the exhibit so you can't miss it. The frame in the second case is also from an old Lo An Kee lion around the same age as the restored one. Eventually it will also go through the restoration process. The third case has a collection of parts showing the variety of pieces that make up a lion. Parts from a variety of lions and makers were chosen from my collection to show the similarities and differences. The museum staff putting the acrylic covers over the cases. The cases look so nice, I have to build some to keep the lion in at home!
One of the best comments I've gotten is from the museum staff who said that many people don't bother to read the signs on display pieces, but so far everyone has taken the time to read mine. Guess all the time and effort my wife and I put into them was worth it! Read on and let me know what you think.
Types of Chinse Lions Meanings in the Colors and Patterns Why do Lions Have Horns?, Front Rebuilding the Framework The Lion's Paper-Thin Skin
Choy Ching, Plucking the Greens Base Frame Paper Ties Bamboo Strips Bristle Hair
Rice Paper Rabbit Fur Gold Trim Rattan Wrap Mirror
Eyes Hero Balls The Artist The Family Certificate of Appreciation
  Dragon Here are a few of the other items on display. Tiger Hats  

There are a few signs that I didn't get good pictures of so if you want to read them all you'll have to go visit America's finest city and spend the $2 for admission to the museum. The rest of the exhibits are more than worth the price.

After this exhibit closes some other venues might be interested in displaying it down the line (details will be posted here if anything works out), but I don't have any set plans. If you know of a location or event that would be interested in showing it feel free to let me know.

Embarrassingly, I just realized I never put my email address here for people to contact me. Feel free to drop me a line at, I look forward to hearing from you!

Open Your Eyes and Wake Up!

I may have mentioned before that lions are seen as agents of heaven, used to frighten evil spirits away and bring a blessing to those for whom it performs. Before it can do that however it needs to be blessed or awakened by going through a special ceremony known as the Dim Jing (點睛) or "Eye Dotting" ceremony. Red paint mixed with whiskey and held in a piece of hollowed out ginger is brushed onto key parts of the lion imbuing it with a strong spirit to carry out its work. In Chinese culture, red is the color of happiness and celebration, and in this case the color of blood to represent the life being instilled in the new lion. In days of old it really was blood, squeezed from the comb of a live rooster, that was used in the ceremony and some groups still use cinnebar powder for this.

Tray of Implements Following Chinese principles of Yin and Yang, the whiskey and ginger are both considered strong Yang elements and will give the lion characteristics such as strength, confidence and intelligence.

During the ceremony other symbolic elements are attached to the horn of the lion. The horn of a lion is considered its link to heaven and a source of its power. Adornments used here strengthen the link and add wishes for additional blessings. For instance the golden flowers with the peacock feather symbolize a high rank, and the green onions are homonyms for intelligence. The red ribbon tying it all together shows that the lion is tamed and is performing for a happy occasion.

Horn of Plenty

This ceremony is also known as Hoi Gung (開光) or "Opening Brightness." In many cultures the eyes are considered the windows to the soul, so this ceremony opens the eyes and lights the soul of the lion.

Many other people have written extensively about the ceremony so rather than just reiterate what they've said here are a few links if you're interested: Hoi Gwong (開光) - Giving Life to the Lion Hoi Gong - Eye Dotting

Now, on to the pictures! Click any picture for a larger version.

The Setup Dotting the Mirror Stalking the Greens Spreading the Wealth Greetings The setup, lions eat lettuce (more on that in my next blog post) and the money in the red envelop is an offering to the team performing the ceremony. The bills attached to the golden stem are folded in the shape of a RuYi Scepter which represents fulfilled wishes. Marty Chiu, who donated the lion for the restoration, dots the mirror. Hungry after being "asleep" for so long, the lion stalks his first meal. The lettuce represents wealth so when the lion throws or spits it out it represents spreading the wealth. After the main part of the routine the newly awakened lion greets the other lions from the troop. Vince Demonstrating The Old Timers It was great to see people who could remember the original Lo An Kee lions admiring and appreciating the restoration. Vince Chan and Yogi Tam even got under the lion to demonstrate the powerful traditional movements that are rarely seen in today's modern performances.

We were also honored to have a special guest, Ryan Au in attendance all the way from the San Francisco Bay Area. Ryan is a fellow lion builder and has his own lion dance blog where he explores many aspects of the art.

Special Guest

Special thanks to the Vince Chan, Yogi Tam, and the Immortals Lion Dance Team of Los Angeles for helping with the ceremony.

Many people have asked, "Now that the restoration is done what are you going to do with the lion? It'd be a shame to just put it into storage." I couldn't agree more! The lion is currently on display at the Chinese Historical Museum in San Diego. If you're in the area please stop by to check it out. I understand the exhibit that it is part of will be running at least through March. More on this in my next post, stay tuned!

Finishing Strong

As the year came to a close the final order of parts arrived from China on the afternoon of December 29, a late but very exciting and welcome Christmas present! So as you can imagine it was a mad dash to finish up by the end of the year. Luckily the last stage of the process, embellishing, is also in some ways the quickest. A lot of time was spent cutting rabbit pelts into strips and sewing the bristle hair attachments onto the head, and I pulled an all-nighter on December 30-31, but overall it was much less intense work than the other stages. Even something as repetitive as gluing on the 263 silver scales was much less tedious that the papering stage. In many ways this was my favorite part since you can really see everything coming together in the last few weeks.

Click any picture for a larger version.

Here's what it looked like after all of the painting was complete: Painted Front Painted Horn Painted Forehead Painted Cheek Painted Side Here's some shots of the embellishment process: Eyelid Pattern Gold Rope Bristle Hair Rabbit Fur Mirror Creating a paper pattern before cutting the eyelids out of cloth can save you from a costly mistake. The gold rope is traditionally made from paper rope covered with gold foil. Using this gold braid was a time saver. Bristle hair is attached to several different areas on the lion head. Rabbit fur is glued on to accentuate the curves of certain parts. The lion's mirror is usually surrounded by a single strip of rabbit fur. I've always thought it would look nice with a second strip of a contrasting color for emphasis. And here's the finished product! Finished Front All done! Finished Top Finished Side Finished Back

Initial Front Initial Back Looking back at the state of this lion before the project started you can definitely see a restoration that is true to the original yet has some enhancements that make it stand out even more from the cookie-cutter lions prevalent today. Even still, there are some things that just can't be replicated. For example, greater range of color choices aside, for sheer volume there's just no beating the old pompoms. It's things like this that keep me waxing nostalgic for the heyday of lion craftsmanship.

Old and New On the left, the original nose pompom--approximately 13cm diameter. On the right, one from the new set a mere 8cm. No comparison.

Although this project is now complete, there is still a lot I need to learn and I can definitely use practice on everything Corey taught me so far. I am very grateful to Corey and ACTA; especially Amy Lawrence who patiently guided us through the process, Suzanne Hildebrand who was instrumental in getting this blog going, and Russell Rodriguez for spending a day documenting our work and facilitating fruitful discussion on the history of the lion dance and it's role in Chinese culture. And of course a very special thank you to my wife and kids for all their support and understanding while I was working on this! I know it has been an awesome and life-enhancing experience for me and I hope it has inspired a new generation of lion dancers take the time to repair and build lions with the love and care they deserve.

Getting His Stripes

The end of the year is coming up quickly so I'm starting to feel the pressure of finishing up by the time 2012 rolls around. But I don't want to rush and do a sloppy job, I'll just have to up my game a little bit and sacrifice some sleep…

While I'm still not fully comfortable painting and wish I could replicate the old patterns more accurately I have to remind myself that this really is my first attempt at painting the blends and patterns and I'm trying to replicate the work of someone who had already painted hundreds of lions. It's not easy decoding the layers, but I'm definitely getting better at it. They say a picture is worth a thousand words so I'll stop writing now and let the shots speak for themselves. What do they say to you? Feel free to drop me a comment below and let me know!

Click any picture for a larger version.

Top Background Blends Forehead Background Blends Back Background Blends Top Patterns Tiger Stripes around the Horn Back Patterns Back Fins Background Blends Front Fins Background Blends Forehead Curl Background Blends Left Eye Blends

I want to help promote other artists who are working on traditional lion dance projects as well, so here's a plug for a T-shirt design featuring a southern lion head that was also made by Lo An Kee. Although it depicts a different Chinese general you can see some similarities in the painting patterns. Check it out and support him if you can!

More shots to come as we near the end of the project, stay tuned!

Eyes and Ears and Mouth and Nose!

One of the great classics of Chinese literature is a novel known as the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. In the novel three warring states are battling for dominance of ancient China and many of the stories and symbolisms have become entwined into the Chinese popular culture and ethos. For example Southern Chinese lions are traditionally named after the heroic generals in the novel and many of the routines the lions perform retell their exploits.

In the Cantonese opera these generals are designated by the color and patterns of their costumes and face paints. These colors have carried over to the design of the traditional southern Chinese lions. The lion in this project was originally painted in the style of general Huang Zhong. This style is signified by a yellow base color with black accents and, because of his age, a white beard and fur. Since my intention is to restore this lion as it was, I will be keeping the same basic coloring and patterns.

Since I’m still learning the art of painting, Corey spent a lot of time with me going over different brushes and the way they are used to create the various patterns. I wanted to start with the smaller pieces so I could get a feel for the brush work before painting on the head itself.

As previously mentioned, traditional painting required a lot of layering and background colors to help the main colors and patterns stand out better. One of the trickiest things about this project was trying to figure out the order of the layers so they could be replicated. I had to spend a lot of time studying the pictures I took of the head before the original paper was stripped off to figure it out and for some areas I’m still not sure I’ve gotten it right. Have a look:

Click any picture for a larger version.

This lion has genuine wooden eyes from China. Most lions have cheap plastic ones these days. Raw Wooden Eyes Finished Eyes All painted and wired, ready to attach. Ear Backgrounds Finished Ears Ear Detail Ear Detail These were the first parts I painted. I’m still not comfortable painting the blends where two background colors meet, but I’ll be getting a lot of practice doing that! Mouth Start Finished Mouth Top Finished Mouth Bottom Mouth Side Detail Mouth Center Detail The tongue was papered and painted after painting the background pattern. The green nose is a traditional element. Finished Nose Nose Side Detail The thin blends were pretty tricky, requiring a small chisel-tipped brush to paint.

Comparing these with the originals, I have a long way to go. I especially need to work on keeping my hand steady and strokes consistent. Keep checking back, I should have some more pictures by the end of the month, and feel free to leave some feedback or comments below, thanks!

Sharing is Caring & Ready for Prime Time!

Since it's been so long since I last updated this will actually be a bonus two-in-one entry! Enjoy!

Display Poster Click the picture to download a full-sized poster in PDF format.

The last weekend of July was an extremely busy time for the project. First, my mentor (Corey Chan) for the project was coming to inspect my progress and instruct me on the next phase (painting). We had also scheduled our site visit with the ACTA representative (Russell Rodriguez) during this time, as well as our public display.

Since we live over 380 miles apart Corey and I had been relying on email communications to monitor the progress of the project and this was the first time we were able to get together in person since the initial training session. Although sending pictures and relying on email to communicate worked in most cases there really is no substitute for seeing things with your own eyes. I was pleased that overall my work was on target and it was good to get some additonal tips for improving my repair and papering techniques from Corey. One setback was that I had inadvertently papered the mouth incorrectly and needed to tear out the work I did and redo it. Overall it will definitely improve the finished product so it was time well spent to make sure it was done right this time.

We spent a few hours with Russell going over not just the specifics of the project, but talking about the whole history of Lion Dancing and how it fit in with the larger story of the Chinese people. A coulple of other Lion Dancers were able to come to that meeting as well and it was interesting to see how similar our experiences were, and how each other's knowledge of the art added to our own understanding of certain aspects. I'm very thankful that Russell was there to ask probing questions that allowed us to expand our knowledge through mutual sharing. I believe the evening definitely will allow us to pass on a deeper understanding of certain aspects of the Lion Dance as we share the art with future generations.

The second Beyond the Pride Lion Dance Exhibition took place the next day and we were honored to have been asked to share the project there as one of the displays in the lobby. We created the poster above especially for the event and setup a table with the papered lion as well as another frame that had been stripped to the bamboo framework so people could see some of the work involved in the restoration. We met so many people who were interested in learning about our work and learning how to take on similar projects themselves, and it was encouraging to hear that several of them were following this blog. The apprenticeship program is not only impacting Corey and me, but helping others as well!

Unfortunately we were having so much fun talking to people that neither Corey or I remembered to take pictures of the display so the one shot below is just about the only one we have. If anyone out there took some pictures, please send copies to us--we'd love to have them for our archives. Also feel free to leave a comment or ask questions, we're happy to share and spread the love for lion building and repair.

Master Chan Enlightens the Crowd I got to narrate one of the routines during the Beyond the Pride 2 Lion Dance exhibition. Here's Corey talking about the project at our display table in the lobby. photo by Stephen Chew

Corey and I finished the weekend by working on papering some more and going over painting patterns and techniques. He also gave me some homework exercises to train my hand to learn the movements to paint some of the patterns consistently.

I spent the rest of August finishing up the papering and studying the photos I took of the original lion to help visualize what I'll need to paint. I've also added a layer of primer which gives the paint a nice even surface to stick to.

Click the picture for a larger version. Primed and Ready for Paint

The project is about to get a lot more colorful! Stay tuned…

Paper Paper Everywhere…

Papering Setup Here's a shot of my papering setup.

The technique I've been using is to lay a piece of rice paper on a waterproof surface and coat both sides with a liquid starch paste then lay it over the framework and smooth it out. Although it may seem like a mindless activity there is some thought involved figuring out which parts to cover first and sometimes what shape to tear the rice paper into in order to go over a shape smoothly.

The first layers are really just to define the shape of the lion's features so it isn't as important for them to completely or perfectly cover the entire head. The subsequent layers will add the strength and toughness so at this point it's sufficient to just lay down a good base. Make sure the paper goes on nice and tight since any sloppiness here will affect the stability of future layers.

There's not really too much else to say about this stage so I'll let the pictures speak for themselves, enjoy!

Click any picture for a larger version.

Papered Cheeks Papered Nostrils Papered Nose Papered Side Papered Mouth Papered Ears

First Layer Front First Layer Side

I'll post some more pictures when I get more layers done.

Mouth & Ear Reconstruction

I'm in the phase of adding the papier-mâché layers to the frame so there really isn't a whole lot to blog about--it's probably the longest and to me the most tedious/repetitious part of the process. Wet paper, stick it on, repeat. I don't want to bore you with all the minute details, so instead I'll tell you about the repairs I made to the mouth and ears.

For those who don't know the lion's mouth is mainly controlled by holding one or both hands in an "OK" sign and turning it so the palm is facing upwards. The thumb and index finger hold the head and mouth through the hole in the corner of the mouth and around the rim of the lion head. The other fingers rest under the mouth and by flexing them the mouth opens and closes in a flapping motion. Sometimes the lion will need to hold things in its mouth such as a head of lettuce, or a scroll or even a fish or crab so the pressure from the fingers can be pretty significant and one of the most common damage areas on a lion is a big hole torn in the mouth from fingers poking through. Lions from Lo An Kee resolve this by using a thin board under the mouth so all of the fingers are pushing against solid wood instead of paper. This is great for strength, but causes some problems of its own.

As you can see in the picture below the papier-mâché doesn't stick as well to wood so it had virtually all fallen off. The wires used to attach the board to the bamboo framing strips also worked loose over the years so the board was wiggling around, further damaging the paper and framing strips. Pushing on the board put more pressure on the framing strips (in terms of physics it acted as a lever) causing them to break their bindings to the front strip. As you can see in the second picture below the board actually warped and split. All of these drawbacks made me rethink how to approach repairs to this area.

I ended up deciding to just add reinforcing strips every inch on the lower half and every inch and a quarter on the top half since that section doesn't get as much abuse.

Click any picture for a larger version.

Original Mouth Condition Split Mouth Board Repaired Mouth

The ears are controlled by a string attached inside of the head that runs from a loop on the end of each ear through the loop I talked about at the end of the repair list in my previous post. Pulling the string hard can damage both the rattan loop and the ear loop. The loop on the right ear had completely broken and was cobbled back to working condition by simply cutting notches into the stem area and retied. The damage to the bamboo skin on the left ear loop was most likely caused by the tight bend the bamboo had to make to make the loop in the first place. You can also see evidence of burning made when using a candle to heat the bamboo before bending it, a necessary evil when working with tight curves in bamboo. My solution, like the replacement string loop, was to use 14 gauge steel wire.

Almost all of the internal framework of the ears is made up of a single piece of bamboo which is split into two "tails" which are bent into the proper shapes and attached to the perimeter. It's a pretty ingenious device.

Click any picture for a larger version.

Original Ears Right Ear Loop Left Ear Loop Split and Bend Split and Bend Top View Repaired Ears   Repaired Ear Loop  

Like I mentioned, papering the frame is a long process so this will probably be my last entry for a while unless something significant happens while I'm working on it.

Carry on until then. I'll be here.



Lather, rinse, repeat.

ad finem.

Keeping the Frame Alive…with Flame!

Looking at all the 140+ areas that needed attention meant keeping to a schedule of 25 repairs or so per week to stay on track with the time line Corey and I came up with for the project. Broken down that meant roughly one major repair (such as a strip replacement or a splint) and 5-7 minor repairs (such as tightening up joints) each session, 3-4 times per week.

Here are some examples of the types of repairs that needed to be made.

Click thumbnails for larger versions.

Before Notes After Flame 'n Tame For some areas bamboo can be simply bent by working it into the desired shape by hand. However for tighter curves and/or sharper angles somtimes it is necessary to heat the strip with an open flame until it becomes more pliable. Angled Bamboo Strip Broken Strut Where there is a break in a bamboo strip but both ends are still touching a splint can be made. This consists of adding a piece behind the break and then securing it on both ends. A final step (not shown) is to wrap over the break as well to further secure the area. Splinted Break Poking Verticals Here you can see the vertical pieces had poked through their bindings and were sticking down below the rim. These loose joints caused the whole head to flop up and down on the rim so the bindings were replaced. Verticals Rebound Broken Back Bamboo This section on the back had three strips with splits (the two verticals and the diagonal). These are strategic pieces so rather than just splint them I opted to completely replace them. I had to untie each joint where the pieces intersected another strip and carefully measure out an exact duplicate before binding the new strip in place. This was quite time-consuming but the renewed strength is worth the effort. Replaced Back Strips Loose Lips, Ties Split As you can see this corner had completely broken free of all the bindings. Each strip needed to be carefully measured against the opposite corner to keep symmetry in the head. A few of the strips needed to be replaced for other reasons as well. Fixed Mouth Corner Busted Eyebrow This is the top of the left eyebrow ridge. A whole section of the upper strip is missing and a broken support strut can be seen in the background. I replaced both with new bamboo strips. New Eyebrow Bamboo Loose L In a few places the bamboo strips were still good but had simply come loose from their bindings. Marking their location and rebinding was a very quick and easy fix. Tight L Broken Strut Here is another support strut needing to be splinted. Splinted Strut Taped Loop The loop of rattan through which the string that controls the lion's ears and eyes runs was broken in two and "repaired" rather crudely with electrical tape. My solution was to bend a thick wire into the proper shape to eliminate the possibilty of a replacement developing a similar break. Wire Loop

Hopefully this gives a good overview of some of the types of repairs that needed to be made to this lion. Working on it certainly has given me a much better understanding of the design and function of each piece. I was also able to compare this frame to a couple of frames from other builders and it was very enlightening to see how different craftspeople approached and solved similar issues in different ways.

Completed Framework, Front View A shot of the repaired and cleaned framework.

Stay tuned: Bring on the Paper!

Every Lion Has a Story

Since my last post I've actually found out a little more of the lion's history and it seems he's been to Disneyland.

A few years ago a new lion dance group was formed, the Awakened Blessing Lion Dance Troupe, in Cerritos, CA. On a limited budget they asked around for used lions to practice with and Marty Chiu, former instructor for the Chinese Association of Orange County generously donated a pair. Because they were deemed too fragile to use they were about to be discarded. However I liked the painting patterns and decided to rescue them, trading a newer in-tact lion from my own collection for the two battered shells.

After starting this internship I thought it'd be nice to actually know something about the lion so I contacted Marty. His reply was:

I am so happy you are taking on this project! The lion head means a lot to me and I am filled with joy that it can be restored the way my Master would want it.

The late Master Ted Lai was the founder of the Chinese Physical Culture Association of Fullerton, a not-for-profit martial arts organization based in Southern California. He was also the creator of a kung fu system posthumously named Lai Chung Ch'uan Fa.

He gifted me this lion head at his death in the 1980's. I don't know when it was first purchased but it was the lion I used when I learned the art of lion dancing and kung fu at a Chinese Cultural School I attended. I was handpicked out of my kung fu class by Master Ted Lai to perform my first "professional" gig at the Disneyland hotel. I joined his Cal State Fullerton kung fu club and we used this lion to march throughout the hotel grounds during the theme "Seaports of the Pacific" all summer long. That time had made a huge impact on my life. He even allowed me to borrow this lion to do my junior high "show and tell" project about Chinese New Year.

You can read more about Master Lai and the association he founded here.

It is an honor to be working on a lion that has meant so much to Master Lai and his many students. I only hope I can do it justice.

So my internship began with a full day spent with Corey at his home in San Francisco. For hours Corey talked and showed me examples of different lions and techniques for working on them. The man is a veritable encyclopedia of Lion Dance knowledge and I did my best to soak it all in, loving every minute of it--there is so much to learn. We covered many topics from harvesting bamboo to prepping it for use, paste making, binding and papering the frame, painting and decorating the lion, and even some traditional routines. We also spent a good amount of time doing hands-on training preparing bamboo and using twisted paper ties to bind the strips together. One of the most important things we did was to talk about how to refer to the different parts of the lion and the many framing pieces remotely since we wouldn't be in close proximity for most of the internship in order to physically point out what we're talking about to each other.

When I got home to Los Angeles it was time to put all that practice and newly gained knowledge to work. I spent about a month preparing bamboo strips, mixing paste, twisting paper ties and going over the frame strip by strip identifying joints that needed to be tightened, repairs to be made and pieces that needed total replacement. Initially I came up with over 140 things that needed attention, (you can see the list here) but as I worked I also found more which I didn't add to the list. The list also doesn't include the ears and mouth which are separate pieces detached from the main head frame.

Click thumbnails for larger versions

Stripped Lion Frame Here is the frame after stripping off the paper skin. A well-built frame is a thing of beauty and it is quite a learning experience just to study the intricate details of each piece and try to deconstruct it in my head so I can understand the order and methods to fix each area. Bamboo Strip Preparation "Raw" bamboo just split into strips is rough and has many splinters hanging off of them on the edges. The splinters are a potential danger when handling the bamboo as well as later to the performers under the lion head and need to be removed. Rough or sharp edges need to be shaved down or else they can cut through the paper bindings prematurely. My Helper I made it look like so much fun that my son took a break from playing Star Wars Clone Troopers in the backyard and wanted to give it a try. He liked it so much he told me he would do the rest of the bundle by himself. We worked all the way until it was too dark to see with him starting each strip and me "checking" his work. With a helper like him this apprenticeship is easier than I thought it would be… Wheat Paste Consistency This shot shows the consistency of the paste I cooked up. The process is very similar to making gravy. Unfortunately I was trying to take pictures and make paste at the same time so mine came out lumpy. Boo! Twisted Paper Ties Here's a small pile of paper ties. All in all I twisted over 300 ties for this project. I would have needed to twist even more but I was able to reuse quite a few of the original ties after unbinding the loose ones from the frame.

Next time: the actual work begins!

Touching History

If you talk to the millenial generation of lion dancers many will tell you how pretty their lions look, how light they are, how flashy, how playful. But if you talk to older performers they will tell you about a time when lions were fierce, when skilled dancers maneuvered the heavy heads as a test of their mettle and a show of the skill that took years to hone. They will tell you of a time when lion head manufacturing was not an assembly-line, cranking out generic products for a quick sale, but an art undertaken by only a few crasftsmen who put care and thought into every element and each step in the process was not a race against time but a step toward a true work of art. A time when even the colors and patterns on a lion told a story about the lion and the school that owned it.

I grew up in between the generations so while I had a taste of the old lions I was lured by the call of the "new is better" mantra. After a while I began to noice the lions just didn't have the same feeling anymore as if some of their depth was missing. I started waxing nostalgic for the old lions with their intricate decorations. I started looking for lions that had the same sense of majesty and power. I finally began to appreciate the artistry of the traditional lions and wanted to keep the traditions that created them alive.

For a period of time there were trade restrictions with mainland China so lion dance groups turned to Hong Kong for their equipment and a few craftsmen stood out as high-quality lion makers. Among these was Lo An Kee (Pinyin: Luo An Ji, traditional Chinese: 羅安記). According to my mentor, Corey Chan, "For lovers of this style—it’s all in the eyes. A large forehead, very ornate double layer gills with 3D spheres, an enormous horn and many fins for ball attachment also distinguish the Luo An style lion." He used standard painting patterns of the time, but instead of simply painting patterns on top of color swatches he took time to layer and blend colors together adding sometimes subtle shadowing and highlighting to really make the designs stand apart from other makers.

A few years ago two lions of his came into my possession. Although they were in fairly bad shape I held onto them hoping one day they could be restored to their former glory. Thanks to this grant from the Alliance for California Traditional Arts and some extensive mentoring sessions with Corey this dream is starting to come closer to reality.

Lo An Lion Front ViewThis is what the lion looked like when I received it. His eyelids were sagging, the papier mache skin was deteriorated in several places, the fur was matted and dirty and the "hero balls" (pompoms) were faded and misshappen. Inside there was framework damage and loose joints.

Lo An Lion RearThe paper and painting had almost totally fallen off of his back.

Lo An Lion NoseAs seen here there were several holes poked through the paper skin.

Lo An Lion Right EarThe blue silk underlayer is hiding a broken bamboo strip on the framework. More damage to the paper and bamboo are evident on the ear.

Lo An Lion TailLo An Lion CollarThe tail had several tears and holes, as did the collar. The name of the group that used to own this lion is written in Chinese characters on the collar. I'm trying to find out more about this group to gain a more complete history of this lion as well as the lion dance scene of Los Angeles in the early 1980s. I would appreciate it if anyone with more information about this group would contact me to chat, thanks!

Lo An Lion Side PatternsHere is a shot of some of the painting details on the side of the lion. Notice the blend from orange to yellow and to the light yellow. Tiger stripes and grass patterns are also seen here as well as a few broadsword strokes.

Lo An Lion TopThe blends are more easily seen in this shot of the top of the lion's head. Notice also the plentiful use of the metallic discs.

Lo An ImitationLo An's style is often imitated even today, but as you can see from this modern example the copies just don't have the same "oomph" as the original. Notice the very limited use of the metallic discs, non-existant background blends and just an overall "flat" feeling of the paint job on this lion even though it follows the same basic pattern and style of painting.

It is my hope that through this internship and this blog that some of that tradition is preserved and passed on.