Six years ago, A-wei (阿偉) was 12 years old and in trouble with the law. Detained several times for petty theft, his teachers and family thought his future looked grim. But after joining the Zhangxing Martial Arts School (長興武術館) in Keelung, A-wei, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, gave up his life of crime to pursue a career in the art of lion dance.
“He was like a [scared] kitten when he first came here,” says Lu Mei-ji (呂美吉), who has operated Zhangxing for the past 25 years, recalling his first impression of A-wei.
Lu was instrumental in helping A-wei turn his life around, by providing him with a home and training in martial arts. The latter skills will be put to the test on Sunday when A-wei leads a team of lion dancers to defend their title on Sunday at the 2012 Kaohsiung Lion Dancing Festival (2012高雄戲獅甲) at the Kaohsiung Arena (高雄巨蛋).
A-wei’s journey from juvenile offender to martial artist involved a complete lifestyle change. The school’s 25 students — all teenagers — live and train together in a environment that resembles a military camp. They wake at dawn and spend the day in school, after which they return to Zhangxing and practice their martial arts until they go to bed.
Lu says the school’s collective lifestyle provides A-wei with structure and organization, and has taught him how to respect himself and others. Moreover, participating in lion dance performances has made him stronger and more confident.
“I cannot imagine who I may have become if I had not met Master Lu,” A-wei says.
But running the school isn’t cheap. Lu says his monthly expenses exceed NT$500,000, including salaries for performers like A-wei, who earns NT$20,000 per month. Due to the student’s performance and martial arts skills, however, Zhangxing commonly receives invitations from institutions at home and around the globe to perform the lion dance. The school received an added boost when they took top honors at last year’s Kaohsiung Lion Dancing Festival.
Performing commercially, Lu says, provides a sustainable mechanism and enhances the quality of the performances. It will also provide ongoing employment for the teenage performers when they reach adulthood.
Zhangxing has also caught the attention of local schools. Recently, Lu has been teaching martial arts and the lion dance in elementary schools and high schools in Keelung, thus exposing this traditional culture to the younger generation.
Revitalizing the dance
Indeed, for Lu Zhangxing is not just about teaching traditional performance to troubled youth, but revitalizing traditional performance troupes, or zhentou (陣頭) in Mandarin, as a serious profession, while respecting tradition.
“Zhangxing is the one who has represented Keelung zhentou culture after its decline,” says Keelung’s Cultural Development Section Chief Chiang Chau-hua (江超華), with obvious pride.
In the past, zhentou performances were popular in Taiwan, providing entertainment at parades, religious festivals, weddings and other festive occasions. However, with the emergence of modern entertainment such as television, recruiting new performers has become increasingly difficult.
Parents are also reluctant to allow their children to join these troupes. Media outlets report that zhentou leaders recruit youths who have been expelled from school for drugs and other criminal activity, stigmatizing and negatively labeling the troupes as a breeding ground for gangsters.
For Lu, it’s a saddening state of affairs because troubled youth might not get a chance to reform and return to society, and traditional performance culture might be lost to future generations.
“We may lose our culture if we do nothing,” Lu says.
Five local teams and seven foreign teams will compete in this year’s Kaohsiung Lion Dancing Festival.