According to a local legend in Hong Kong, in 1880 the small fishing village of Tai Hang (大坑) was devastated by a powerful typhoon. Around the same time, a large serpent entered the village and was killed by some of the residents. Shortly afterwards, plague and cholera broke out, leading to the deaths of many villagers.
One of the village elders had a dream that the python was the son of the wrathful Dragon King and the only way to rid the neighbourhood of plague was to parade a mock serpent covered in incense sticks through the streets. This they did and, accompanied by drummers and firecrackers, they danced for three days and three nights.
Seemingly miraculously the plague disappeared, possibly disinfected by the sulphur in the fire crackers. Every year since then the residents of Tai Hang (today situated between the busier districts of Tin Hau and Causeway Bay) have performed the Fire Dragon Dance for three nights during the Mid-Autumn Festival in memory of the incident.
This year I went along on warm sunday evening to see for myself and I managed to capture a bit of the action on the video above (HD version available on Vimeo).
To get a good view you’ll have to arrive pretty early since it gets extraordinarily crowded. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people wielding digital cameras before! In a way this rather spoils it but at the same time the volume of people adds to the atmosphere.
Once the dragon has paraded through the main street it careers down some of the narrower side-streets from where you’re more likely to get a closer view – although get too close and you may end up with face full of burning incense. Sadly my shots were pretty blurry but you can see a better gallery on CNNGo.
Drummers also make up a large part of the festival procession providing a continuous beat for the dragon to wind its way in and out of people holding up decorative banners and signs.
The Fire Dragon is altogether 220 feet long with its body divided into 32 segments and the dancers take it in turns to hold it up. Controlling the heavy head and tail requires much strength so only the most experienced participants are allowed to wield it, the former weighing around 70 kilos alone. Getting burnt is apparently part of the fun!
In nearby Victoria Park at the Lee Kum Kee Lantern Wonderland there was also a Guinness World Record attempt with a lantern that measures 37 meters long and 14 meters wide. Shaped like a fish it pulsated with different lighting patterns - novel but a bit tasteless in my opinion…