The Fire Dragon’s Last Dance


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Chi­nese mythol­o­gy depicts the drag­on as a long, ser­pent-like crea­ture with pow­er­ful talons. Often linked with aus­pi­cious pow­er, it is the nat­ur­al choice for the sym­bol of for­tune.

23 Feb­ru­ary 2012
The tem­ple called me up to pho­to­graph a tri­en­ni­al event, the light-up of the fire drag­on. The life and death of the drag­on hap­pened on that very night of Feb­ru­ary, as it danced its great­est first and last — its only dance.

Amidst the pray­ing devo­tees at the tem­ple, prepa­ra­tion for the dragon’s dance were under­way. The straw drag­on was stabbed with bun­dles of lit incense in almost every inch of its body. From my under­stand­ing of this rit­u­al, it is sup­posed to bring the for­tune of the drag­on to the peo­ple. The troupe mem­bers had to ensure that every joss stick was burn­ing before the dragon’s dance could com­mence.

The fumes from the incense, thick and unfor­giv­ing, caused dis­tress to the eyes. Hot ash from the hang­ing coiled incense col­lapsed unpre­dictably, aging the young con­sid­er­ably when it dis­in­te­grat­ed on crops of lus­cious black hair. Still, peo­ple young and old, braved the cir­cum­stances to wit­ness the event.

The vital spots of the drag­on had to be coaxed with red ink before the drag­on could come to life. The sym­bol­ic areas of the drag­on were marked and soon enough, the drag­on was ready for its dance. A sym­bol­ic dance of good for­tune, one that hap­pened a night every three years.

And dance it did. Amid the row­dy clat­ter of cym­bals and per­cus­sions, it strut­ted on the street, fol­lowed by a siz­able group of devo­tees. It raged and bel­lowed tongues of flames. It twirled and spun and twist­ed, and chased pearl balls made of incense, a tes­ti­mo­ny of its fierce insis­tence of hav­ing an amaz­ing dance. Res­i­dents of Sims Dri­ve fol­lowed the pro­ces­sion, in hope that for­tune would be show­ered upon them. Vehi­cles stopped and patient­ly allowed the spec­ta­cle to unfold, armed with the knowl­edge of the sig­nif­i­cance of the event. Chil­dren and adults alike point­ed, mouths slight­ly agape.

The dance was intense. Each twirl the drag­on made, it spat hot ash from the incense. And it was brief, last­ing all of thir­ty min­utes before the drag­on sur­ren­dered, incense almost burn­ing out com­plete­ly. Amidst cel­e­bra­to­ry cries of ‘olé’, its tired body was escort­ed to the road­side, where it rest­ed whilst the troupe mem­bers clam­ored for pic­tures, memen­tos of the last drag­on they would be see­ing in three years. There­after, the drag­on was guid­ed where it would be cre­mat­ed and be reborn again. In three years.


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