02 Feb A cup of tea with a Lion Dancer in Yangon’s Chinatown
Yangon’s Chinatown is a traveller’s hotspot. Every evening 19th Street turns into a jovial street food bazaar where backpackers feast on beer and barbequed skewers and you find plenty of cheap and cheerful hostels with free breakfast and cosy rooftop bars. The whole neighbourhood has a distinct Chinese character and festive feel with red lanterns, ornate temples and mooncakes hot out of the oven. But it wasn’t always like that, under the military rule life wasn’t easy for the Chinese people of Yangon. Many fled the country, those who stayed, kept a low profile and blended in. Now under the new regime, Chinese life is no longer confined behind closed doors but can once again spill out on the streets. Character signboards appear on shopfronts, people start learning Chinese, dim sum recipes resurface and every year the Chinese New Year celebrations grow bigger. We spoke to U Thein Aung, a Lion Dancer in Yangon, who is a master about his craft, the Chinese legacy in Yangon and spirit of this bustling neighbourhood.
U Thein Aung, founder of Lion Dance Association of Yangon, practicing Ma Bu since the age of 13
Becoming a lion dancer
As one incense stick burned from start to finish, U Thein Aung would have to remain in a squat position. This strenuous training exercise was to become a lion dancer. It was just one of many exercises that a 13-year-old novice had to endure. “You have to be strong enough to hold the lion’s head and to move with ease”, retells U Thein Aung in China Town’s Sint O Dan street — the heart of Chinatown.
U Thein Aung became mesmerized by the lion dance as a child. One of his earliest memories is watching the lion and dragon dance performances in the Yangon streets during Chinese New Year. When he decided to dedicate his time to become a dancer and trained 6 days a week. Sundays were his only day to relax, joining his friends to play football in the street, going to the movies or exploring the streets in Chinatown which were largely overgrown with vines, trees and festooning flowers.
You have to be strong enough to hold the lion’s head and perform the powerful moves with ease
Practice out on the street in Chinatown, in the competition teams perform on poles two metres above the ground
Building the Myanmar lion dance team
For U Thein Aung he has always loved the traditions and the meaning of the lion dance, not just the display of strength and interesting movement. “The lion symbolises good luck,” he explains, “the martial artists would put on the lion head and perform for their teacher, elders or someone they’re thankful for.” The Dragon and Lion Dance Association of Yangon was formed in 2006 when the country became more open. It is led by U They Aung who oversees their training. The team of 20 doesn’t just perform for Chinese New Year, but they also take part in international lion dance competitions. Chinese New Year celebrations continue to grow and grow in size and popularity in Myanmar. A more expensive community of Burmese locals who previously didn’t take part in years under the former military regime, now visit Chinatown as the streets light up during the festival.
Now the streets of Chinatown light up during the Chinese New Year celebrations, and it continues to grow and grow in size and popularity.
It is not just about the display of strength and interesting movements, it is about traditions and the meaning of the dance
Teachers give the chance for kids to innovate, which makes the Myanmar team stand out on the world stage
Finding the balance in tradition and innovation
The training from U Thein Aung’s childhood differs to the contemporary training. He laments that “kids these days don’t have any stamina.” There are no hour-long squat exercises or gruelling fitness trainings. Instead the team usually only train a few hours a day in-between their day jobs and study.
However, one thing that has changed over the years is the new heights and leaps that dancers are taking in their routines. “They are very adventurous alright, but compared to us when we trained, their strength can be questionable.”
Next month the Yangon lion dance team will compete at the world championships in Malaysia. In the competition teams perform the traditional lion dance on poles two metres above the ground. Judges award points for the timing, technical skills and overall movement composition. U Thein Aung says Myanmar is always viewed by other country teams as one of the most adventurous teams. “The world is very interested in Myanmar right now, there are so many powerful skilful moves to perform on these poles.”
He’s confident that Myanmar can secure a placing at the competition because this year they have been breaking away from previous dance routines. While he bristled at first when he saw the new approach of the dancers but says proudly that teachers in Myanmar “give the chance for kids to innovate”, which makes them stand out on the world stage.
The Myanmar lion dance team is always viewed by other country teams as one of the most adventurous ones.
Meet the drummer of the Myanmar Lion Dance squad training for the world championships in Malaysia
Lion dance master U They Aung oversees their training of a team of 20
Want to find the spirit of Chinatown?
Ready to explore the streets of Chinatown? There’s plenty more to see, including a Lion Dancer in Yangon. Get your hands on the iDiscover Yangon Guide with 4 handcrafted itineraries that bring you the honest and authentic in the city’s most historic neighbourhoods: Chinatown, Indian Quarter, Pansodan and around the Secretariat. Comes with a free navigational app so you can get lost without getting lost. Feel more like a guided tour? Check out Yangon Heritage Trust, they’re the best.
Find Chinatown’s hidden gems and insider secrets with the iDiscover App&Map
Words and photography by Libby Hogan
Libby is a freelance journalist who has documented the changes across Myanmar’s many ethnic states in the past three years after Aung San Suu Kyi won elections. Her passion is looking at youth culture and stagleaping to isolated regions to hear untold stories from those who never had access to media or the opportunity to speak freely. Check out her website.
Libby’s favourite spot in Yangon: watching the sun set behind Shwedagon Pagoda when walking the boardwalk at Kandagyi Park.
Interviews by Tiffany Tang
Tiffany Tang is iDiscover’s community manager. Hong Kong born free-spirited and adventurous urban traveller Tiffany has a passion for culture and cities. Born in Hong Kong, she speaks Cantonese, Mandarin and English and even a bit of Tai Shan (Southern Guang Dong province) which came in handy during the interviews. She has fallen in love with Myanmar for its friendliness and relaxing creative environment.
Favourite spot in Yangon: Central Train Station, on my way to a new destination in this beautiful country
Translation & facilitation by Thurein Tint
Thurein (or just call him Tim) is 19 years old graphic designer and recent graduate from the prestigious Pre-Collegiate Programme in Yangon. He loves the city where he was born and raised, but dreams of going overseas one day to explore new adventures. Find him at @timmmdraws
Favourite spot in Yangon: they do a really good mohinga breakfast at 11th street in Chinatown
Map design by Mekong Kyaw Swar
Mekong is an art director and illustrator who handcrafts minimalistic elegant works of Burmese heritage and sunny landscapes out of his hometown Yangon. Find him at @mdesignygn
Favourite spot in Yangon: BBQ with beer on 19th street in Chinatown