Thousands of festival-goers packed a historic neighbourhood of Hong Kong to watch a “fire dragon” lit with incense sticks dance through the streets in a century-old ritual.

The 67-metre (220-foot) long dragon snakes around the network of narrow paths in the village of Tai Hang each year to the sound of roaring drums, and is one of the highlights of the celebrations for Wednesday’s mid-autumn festival.

fire dragon tai hang
In this picture taken on October 3, 2017, a participant holds the head of a “fire dragon” as he takes part in the annual Tai Hang “fire dragon” event, one of the highlights of the city’s mid-autumn festival, in Hong Kong. Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP.

Around 300 performers carry the dragon through the neighbourhood for three consecutive evenings as it billows smoke, shaking and dipping its head and tail to the beat of the drums.

Only men — former and current Tai Hang residents of all ages — can be part of the dragon’s body, but in recent years women have cracked through the all-male spectacle to become lead drummers.

The tradition is said to have started around 1880, after the once sleepy coastal village was hit by a typhoon, followed by a plague.

Desperate to change its fortunes, villagers created a “fire dragon” and paraded it for three days and three nights, chasing away the plague, according to local lore.

After years of land reclamation and gentrification, Tai Hang now lies inland from Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour and is home to upmarket restaurants and luxury condominiums, though a flavour of the old days remains.

“The community now is very different. Many old residents have left the neighbourhood. The mid-autumn festival every year is a good opportunity for all of us old residents to have a gathering,” said Cheung Kwok-ho.

A Tai Hang native, Cheung is a maker of the dragon, planted with tens of thousands of burning incense sticks during the festival — now on China’s list of intangible cultural heritage.

 Making the dragon 

Work to assemble the dragon starts weeks in advance, its body consisting of a hemp rope “spine” wrapped with heaps of straws which are then tightly secured by metal wires.

Its makers say the humble but resilient materials for the dragon can, with expertise, be sculpted into a mighty creature.

“It requires skills to bend the rattan and create its shape before you strap on the straws, which are very thin,” Chan Tak-fai, the dance’s chief commander, told AFP.

“It’s important to show its vigour,” Chan said as he pointed to the dragon head’s skeletal features, which would be guided during the dance by two swivelling “pearls” — Chinese grapefruits also studded with glowing incense sticks.

Chan, 71, inherited the trade from elders after he began observing the dragon’s making in the streets of Tai Hang when he was five. He joined the team in the 1970s when he was in his twenties.

The materials for the dragon are increasingly hard to source, Chan said, with the bulk of it now imported from mainland China.

But the methods for creating it remains the same as the festival enters its 138th year.

The spectators cheering on the fire dragon Tuesday said they were electrified by the atmosphere, not to mention the fiery and smoky effects.

“You can see the veterans speeding about tirelessly and working very hard to preserve this tradition… It looks magnificent,” said Ventus Siu, 27.

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