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Chau Luen Performs at the Fire Dragon Festival in Vancouver

Updated: Jan 28

One of the things that Chau Luen Athletics is known for is community involvement. Bringing people to Vancouver’s Chinatown and making memorable moments in our neighbourhood is at the core of what we do.

Since its return in 2022, we’ve been the main showstopper of the annual Fire Dragon Festival in Vancouver. It’s a massive celebration that’s been taking place since the 1800s, and our team of experienced dragon dance performers were back at it again in 2023.

Here’s how the event went down and a little more info on the festival itself.

Preparing for the Fire Dragon Festival

Chau Luen Athletics has been performing dragon dances for decades. Last year alone, over 100,000 people saw us twisting and turning our 60-foot long dragon around Chinatown during the Lunar New Year Parade. In the summer of that same year, we were the featured act for both the opening of Vancouver’s Chinese Canadian Museum and Canada Day celebrations. We’ve also made waves at multiple banquets and celebrations with our one-of-a-kind LED dragon.

So as experienced performers, we definitely had the prestige to carry the fire dragon – but this festival was nonetheless something truly different and incredible in its own way.

The difference between a normal dragon dance and the Fire Dragon

In short, the Fire Dragon is made of straw and covered in incense, which is then lit. The glowing embers dancing around as 9 of us swing the massive beast is something truly distinct from any normal dragon dance performance.

Jessica Ho, Steven Der, and Kyle Hui of Chau Luen Athletics inspect the fire dragon
Credit: Mayowill Photography

In reality, it’s also a lot heavier! From our perspective, the lightweight cloth lion that we’re accustomed to is as light as a feather compared to a 20-foot coil of straw. And did we mention that it’s soaked in water? This is mainly to ensure that there were no fast-spreading fires, as well as a good way for us performers to get jacked. Even though the performance itself was much shorter than the parade we did during Lunar New Year, it truly tested our strength and stamina.

Origins of the Fire Dragon Festival

Curious about the origins of this amazing performance? Here’s a point-form retelling of how the Fire Dragon Festival came to be:

  • Around 140 years ago, a series of unfortunate events struck the village of Tai Hung in Hong Kong.

  • After a period of horrific stormy weather, a large serpent attacked and terrorized the villagers.

  • A few brave villagers decided that enough was enough and took the snake out.

  • After its body mysteriously disappeared from the police station, the village was hit by a terrible plague.

  • An elder had a dream that the plague could be eradicated by a combination of a dragon studded with burning incense and firecrackers.

Fortunately, the villagers listened to the old man, and the plague and other crises were averted. The villagers, as well as villages nearby, decided to continue on with the celebration, which has been an annual affair for over a century.

Vancouver Fire Dragon Festival 1975

This amazing cultural tradition was actually ported over to Vancouver once in 1975, but was not held for decades until the Chinatown Celebration Society decided to revive it in 2022.

Lion dance lessons at Chinatown Plaza

Now that we’ve got our little history lesson out of the way, let’s get into the full recap.

We started the day at Chinatown Plaza. Originally, the lion dance seminars were supposed to be held at Chinatown Memorial Plaza, but in typical Vancouver fashion, the weather was not cooperating and the rain had driven us indoors. Not a problem at all!

Leanne Yu teaches lion dance at Chinatown Plaza

We brought some beautiful lions and other equipment with us to teach Vancouverites the basics. People young and old stopped by to learn lion dance, practicing simple moves and watching in awe as we performed several lion dance demonstrations.

Shawn Zhang and Kyle Hui demonstrate Choy Lee Fut Kung Fu at Chinatown Plaza

We even did some kung fu demos. Disciples Shawn and Kyle demonstrated a two-person set, reminiscent of the old kung fu movies we all know and love.

Gueshly Masson performs kung fu with an umbrella

The fun continued as Gueshly demonstrated a broadsword set. But since we’d probably get a funny look if we were carrying weapons in the street, he made do with an umbrella! Perfect for the Vancouver weather that we all know and love.

As much as the crowd enjoyed our performances and lion dancing lessons, you can consider this as sort of an opening act. The big event (with all the fire and drumming) was coming up!

Fire Dragon Festival recap

Weren't able to make it to the big event? You definitely missed out! In case you were curious, here’s a recap and a few photos by Mayowill Photography and Christina Lee that will both make you regret not coming and hopefully be a catalyst to bring you out next year.

A true labour of love by Bagua Artist Association, artist Steven Dragonn, and volunteers, this 60-foot incense-filled dragon took shape over the course of 6 weeks before being brought to life during the parade.

Lighting incense for Fire Dragon

To bring the dragon to life on the big day, we lit as much of it as we could, which proved to be difficult as there was quite a lot to light and a limited amount of blowtorches. But we got everyone involved, even bringing out some “no name” Superstore lighters in on the fun.

After a few speeches, our Sigung Peter Wong read out a classical poem as dignitaries participated in the eye-dotting ceremony. A couple lion dances from our friends at UBC Kung Fu caught the attention of attendees before the show began. As always, we’re so glad to collaborate with them! Once all of the eye-dotting was done and the dragon was fully awake, we set off to the beat of the drums.

Through the night, you could see the incense glowing as the dragon swept through the streets. Hundreds turned out despite the rain and cold, nearly all with smiles on their faces and a ton of photos on their phones by the end of it.

Vancouver Fire Dragon Festival in Chinatown
Credit: Mayowill Photography

Since the dragon was so heavy and some parts were on fire, we had a slightly altered routine. For example, no skip-roping over the dragon lest we find ourselves with burns where the sun don’t shine, but the spectators were still immensely impressed.

A crowd gathers to watch the 2023 Fire Dragon Festival in Vancouver
Credit: Mayowill Photography

Curious how we managed to keep everything at full tempo? We’re fortunate enough to have 20 dragon dancers who subbed in and out on the fly like a perfect hockey line change. It was a mix of students from Chau Luen Athletics, Choy Lee Fut Hung Hsing Kwoon, and UBC Kung Fu – our usual lineup for all dragon dance performances.

After what seemed like no time at all, we had reached the end of the parade route at Chinatown Memorial Plaza. With a few more bows, we raised the smoking dragon one last time to a cheering crowd.

Chau Luen Athletics and UBC Kung Fu's Fire Dragon team in Vancouver
Credit: Mayowill Photography

It was an amazing feeling. We had been working hard for weeks, making sure our technique was down pat and we had the stamina to showcase the energy that we had. As people crowded the flaming dragon to take photos, many complimented our skills and agility. A couple visiting from Australia actually detoured to Chinatown specifically to see us, saying that this reminded them of their Fire Dragon Festivals in Australia.

As we walked the dragon back to the organizer’s building, as exhausted as we were (it was definitely a long day!), we were already looking forward to the next one. We were happy to have done our part in giving back to the community, and keeping this century-old tradition alive and well for all to enjoy.

See you at 2024’s Fire Dragon Festival!

We hope you enjoyed our performance! If you’re ever interested in booking a dragon dance or have a community event that you really want to spice up, don’t hesitate to reach out. If you’re interested in learning more about dragon dance or maybe even performing with us one day, be sure to give us a shout. We hope to see you again in 2024!


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