Making lions' heads (CNY series part 6 of 6)

Pictures by: 
Jonathan Choo
Report by: 
Benson Ang

With his gnarled hands, he creates the costumes out of rattan and cloth, starting with the bulbous heads. From there, he creates the gentle, long eyelashes that will accentuate their beautiful, blinking eyes. Then he attaches a long shaggy beard, one that will quiver when the lion dances.

Mr Henry Ng, 53, is one of Singapore’s lion dance costume makers and perhaps one of the last full-timers, which makes him a custodian of this vanishing trade.

These lions usually make their grand appearances during the Chinese New Year period.

For the last 18 years, Mr Ng has been making these customised suits by hand and from scratch, and he has made more than 2,000 lions from his five-room HDB flat in Ang Mo Kio.

Most are for lion dance troupes, co-curricular activity groups, or businesses who want something special to represent them at corporate events. Some of his “pets” have also been used in national and international competitions.

To create each lion, Mr Ng first creates a skeleton for the head using bamboo. Strand by strand, he weaves it together. He then uses gauze and high-fibre paper, to strengthen the structure and give the lion its “skin” and “flesh”.

He uses glue, which he makes himself, to ensure that the different layers stick together. He also paints designs on the head and attaches rabbit and sheep fur to make each lion unique. The lion’s body, with its gold, orange or yellow trim, is outsourced to a tailor, who puts the whole lion together based on his instructions.

Mr Ng takes five days to make each lion, but each will last 15 years or more. Each costs between $1,200 and $1,900. Completed, stylised big cat heads sit around his flat, wrapped in plastic. As the lion dance is primarily about strength, he notes, the costumes must be light enough to wield.

Mr Ng knows this because he was a lion dancer himself, an activity he picked up when he was 13. He then began to dabble in making the costumes as a hobby, learning mainly by dismantling damaged lions.

In 1995, he became one of 10 professional full-time costume makers here, making more than 100 lions every year. He told The New Paper in Mandarin: “At that time, there was so much demand that I would make the lions into the night, sometimes until the sun rose.”

“The skin on my fingers became thick because I was always handling bamboo, and until today, I cannot be identified by my thumbprints.”

Over the years, the demand for quality,handmade costumes has fallen because of mass-produced made-in-China lions, which can be bought online. And while Mr Ng would naturally say that their quality might be inferior to his creations, they are certainly cheaper.

These days, Mr Ng and his cloth lions are an endangered species. He makes only 30 to 40 lions every year, and he reckons he is the only full-timer left. He thought of changing jobs four years ago, but said he could not bear to give it up.

The family income is supplemented by his wife Nancy, 49, who works in an air cargo warehouse. His three children, aged 14 to 18, also have little interest in his craft. Despite these challenges, he continues to take pride in his work.

He said: “You have to give the customer what he wants. If he pays more than $1,000 for your lion and it falls apart after a few steps, he will run away.” But he said: “As long as there is still demand, I will continue making lions.”

Said lion dance instructor Nicholas Cheong, 39: “Henry will customise what you want and the quality is there, that’s why we go to him. “He also uses better materials, so his lions tend to last longer than if we bought them from China.”

Added the manager of Xin Cheng Events And Entertainment, a local lion dance troupe that has bought more than 20 lions from Mr Ng: “If the costumes get damaged, it is also easy to go straight to him to get them repaired.”

This article was first published in The New Paper on February 13, 2013.