A dance with dragons: ancient Chinese performance is alive in Canberra

For many Asian Australians, navigating childhood and adolescence in a predominately white society isn't the easiest of experiences. Dr Wilson Lo can relate.

"I grew up in Canberra. I remember looking at the White Pages... and you could count eight Chinese families," says Dr Lo, the owner of Yut Hung Kung Fu Academy.

"For me to connect with my culture, it was very difficult. And I feel other people have been through the same thing. Times have changed a lot in Canberra."

Lunar New Year is now in full swing. Celebrated by an estimated 1.5 billion people worldwide, Canberra is currently ringing it in with lively family reunions and delicious banquets. And the tradition runs even deeper when it comes to the art of ancient cultural performance.

Lo founded Canberra's Yut Hung Kung Fu Academy in 2004 to equip children and teenagers with practical self-defence skills. Within the academy, he also teaches Chinese dragon dance and percussion.

Students of the academy bring multi-layered performances to the capital and surrounds, incorporating self-defence displays with lion dance, dragon dance and Chinese percussion.

Canberra Dragon Dance members finish a training session at the University of Canberra. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Canberra Dragon Dance members finish a training session at the University of Canberra. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Canberra Dragon Dance is currently bringing its colourful dragons - including one 18-metre Singaporean beast - to spots including the University of Canberra, IKEA, and various restaurants. They're also set to perform at the upcoming National Multicultural Festival, as well as Jindabyne's Flowing Festival.

The origins of the dragon dance date back to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), when it was originally performed to honour ancestors and summon rain for their harvest. The tradition strengthened and diversified over the years, and become integral in Chinese folklore.

"Traditionally, the dragon comes out once a year, awakens, and scares away the evil spirits. It blesses everything it touches," Lo says.

Lo aspires to bring Asian arts to the Canberra community, and believes that through this medium he can introduce Chinese culture to those keen to learn. "Anyone who wants to learn, can learn about it," he says.

While dragon dance is steeped in Chinese history, the students include young children, teenagers, university students and adults who hail from mainland China, Malaysia, and Korea. Lo also notes that several "white Anglo-Saxon Aussies" are involved in the troupe.

"For me, personally, I do it to get back into the tradition of my roots," he says. "I'm hoping this will allow other Asian communities to experience their roots and tradition without going to the bigger centres."

Another person who performs with Canberra Dragon Dance to connect with his heritage is ANU law student Aaron Zee.

While most of his family is in Melbourne for Lunar New Year, he's skipped it this time round to perform in Canberra.

"Part of this is me connecting with my Chinese heritage," Zee says. "Funnily enough, I got into dance when I was 14 and my friend suggested I try out a free kung fu lesson. It turned out that half the class was lion and dragon dance. There's a lot of overlap with the dance and kung fu movements."

Half-Malaysian-Chinese and half-Scottish, Zee is not only skilled in kung fu and dragon dance, he's also known to get on the bagpipes.

"I've tried to get to know both of my heritages as much as possible. I'm 100 per cent Australian, but I think it's good to engage," he says.

"It's important to know where you're from."

Canberra Dragon Dance will perform at the National Multicultural Festival on Bunda St on Saturday 16th February at 10.45am, and again during the parade at 4pm. For more information on Canberra Dragon Dance's performances, visit their Facebook page.