SINGAPORE: Chinese New Year is usually a bittersweet time for interior designer Ong Eng Chuan.
While most people celebrating the festival would be with their loved ones, this 23-year-old ushers in the new year for strangers, as a lion dance performer.
“Every year … while everyone is out visiting their relatives, I’d be spending my time on lion dancing. I’d be so tired at the end of the day,” said Mr Ong, who spends more time on this sport than with his family.
It is just one of the sacrifices he and his buddy, Lee Kai Ming, also 23, have been willing to make for their craft, which they've pursued with a passion since they were in their early teens - a single-minded determination that has turned them into champions.
The duo from the Yi Wei Athletic Association may be part-timers - they both hold day jobs - but they are a formidable force that has won competitions across Asia, beating professional teams from China and Malaysia, among others.
Their athletic routine involves heart-stopping acrobatics from pole to pole, sometimes 3 metres or more above the ground, all while having to be in perfect, split-second sync with each other.
Unsurprisingly, over the years, it has not been a journey without pain.
The two lion dancers have struggled with injury, work commitments and objections from their families, even keeping their practices a secret from them at one point, as the programme Unusual Suspects discovered. (Watch the episode here.)
HIS MOM DIDN’T KNOW
Once while competing in Taiwan, Mr Ong fell from the dance poles, hit his face, fractured a cheekbone, and had to be treated in a nearby hospital. His mother banned him from the sport after that.
“Some people thought I’d quit after that, but in the end I still returned,” he said in Mandarin.
“Since then, I’ve kept my mother in the dark. I don’t want her to know I’m still performing," he added.
I feel guilty about deceiving her, but this is something I really love, so it’s best I don’t tell her about it.
For his partner-in-craft Mr Lee, a freight forwarding executive, the worst injury he sustained was to his leg after falling from the poles. He needed 17 stitches to close the wound.
He has also faced objections from his family, who felt that being a lion dance performer “wasn’t a good thing” and was “dangerous”.
“My family was opposed to me doing this at the start … but they saw how good an exercise it was,” he said. “So now, they just tell me to be more careful instead.”
For all the risks, the adrenalin rush of leaping from pole to pole was what attracted him to this sport.
He controls the movements of the lion’s body and focuses on the difficult acrobatics, while Mr Ong manoeuvres the head and all its expressive movements that are vital in the performance.
Said Mr Lee: “I became interested in it after watching (lion dance performers) do difficult moves. It’s so exciting, especially when we have to jump about in the air.”
His partner recalled being fearful yet thrilled while watching his first performance at the Chinese Garden when he was seven - from a safe distance. “I was afraid to get too close,” said Mr Ong.
THEY NEARLY GAVE UP
The two joined a lion dance troupe to pursue their interest, but did not count on the training regime being so tough in the initial years.
One of their training camps took place in Malaysia. For two weeks, they had to wake up at 7am daily and practise the whole day.
They had difficulty adjusting to the kampung environment; there was no internet connection, and they could not use their smartphones.
Irritated and tired, they even contemplated escaping from the training facility and flagging down a cab to return home on the second day. “We wanted to go home," said Mr Lee.
But we decided against it after realising that this was what we'd asked for, and that only practice produces better results.
They stuck with the training and participated in a competition in Malaysia after that, coming in third.
As Mr Lee put it, already in those early years, "we had this dream and set our ambition to take part in competitions together".
While they have done well in overseas competitions, none compares to the annual National Lion Dance Championships on home ground, organised by the Singapore Wushu Dragon and Lion Dance Federation.
To secure the overall championship trophy – one of the highest honours a local lion dance troupe can achieve – a team must win the competition for three consecutive years, explained Mr Ong.
The duo emerged victorious for the first time in 2014 and were hoping to repeat that success in 2015. But it was not meant to be.
“We made a small mistake: I was doing a somersault and I fell,” Mr Lee recounted.
At that instant, sitting on the floor, I was thinking how everything was finished because we could no longer defend our championship title.
Being a winner is easy - having the fortitude to get back up and try again is what makes a true champion. And that's what the boys did.
WATCH: Their winning moves (3:51)
They practised harder, and won the competition in 2016 and 2017, giving them a shot at the overall trophy this year.
During last year's semi-finals in September, the duo were a fraction of a point behind the top team during the semi-finals. Though they made no mistakes, Mr Lee said critically: "Our movements were a little sloppy; our speed and coordination weren't perfect."
They upped their game in the final, and won by 0.5 over their main rival. “The audience and the judges recognised our sacrifices and efforts, so we’re quite satisfied," said a relieved Mr Lee.
“Now we have to work harder."
IS IT WORTH IT?
Although their love for lion dance has taken its toll on their bodies and their relationships with their loved ones, they would not have it any other way.
“Lion dancing is important to me because of how much I’ve sacrificed for it,” said Mr Lee said, admitting that his relationship with his friends and family would have been better had he not joined the sport.
Mr Ong thinks his life would be simpler without lion dance.
“Normally after work, we’re already quite tired, but we don’t have time to rest or to even have our dinner. We really need to put our blood, sweat and tears into our practice,” he said.
“For the sake of lion dance, I sacrifice a lot – time that I could spend with my family, friends and my girlfriend.”
Watch this episode of Unusual Suspects here.