SINGAPORE: My first glimpse of the lion puppet for this year's National Day Parade (NDP) is through the window of a Grab vehicle.
It peeks out from behind the stands as I passed, a giant glimmering creature looking like it was cobbled together from thousands of reflective strips of a Corrective Work Order vest.
Up close, it looks deceptively light. Although it's six metres tall, eight metres wide and weighs 1,000kg, I can't help but see it as nothing but a blown-up piece of origami.
It was only when members of the NDP organising committee pulled me aside to give me a safety briefing when I realised that I might have underestimated the prop.
You need boots, they told me, after looking at my well-worn Converse sneakers. You don’t want the edge of the structure to run over your foot - and crush it, was the implicit meaning.
Once appropriately suited up, I was introduced to Jensen Lim, the 20-year-old crew member who will be my guide for the day. Although he was nervous to be on camera, he spoke with a confidence from having practised with the prop for months on end.
“We’ll do a demonstration first,” he says, signalling the other eight crew members into position - one for each leg, one to operate the head, and four others to push the entire structure up the Padang stage.
As part of my task, I had to move the left leg in rhythm with the right leg. One goes up while the other comes back down, Jensen explained, with another crew member demonstrating.
Then it’s my turn to try.
I gripped the twin handles and pushed. I can feel all my muscles straining as I struggled to even lift the upper half of the leg, much less coordinate the lower part of the leg to make the prop look like it’s walking.
I can feel the amusement of the nine crew members as they watched me flail helplessly.
I am only given a few more tries before it's time for us to walk the puppet. Several uncoordinated leg movements in, my arms gave up.
Unlike me, Jensen and the eight other crew members worked with each other in smooth coordination like seasoned puppeteers. Although they’re missing one sick member, each movement was confident and purposeful.
This comes from training three times a week for the past few months.
“I will take about half an hour for the legs to warm up (during each training). They will get to coordinate with each other, see how they can improve from last week, how it can make more real.
“After that, we will practice the pushing. So the pushing must be on time… After that, all together we will do both movements together to ensure there is no gaps,” says Jensen as he explained the training process.
But the practice does not stop at the Padang stage. According to Jensen, the crew also watched lion documentaries separately, to better mimic a real lion’s movements.
While they may seem natural on stage now, Jensen said it took plenty of effort to get where they're at now.
“The first week we tried… I would say we failed two out of three practices. Because one, we couldn’t coordinate between the legs and the movement, because the lion rocks as you control the legs.
“So there are points where the lion’s legs touch the floor (and) scrape the bottom of the metal frame,” he said.
In fact, the first time the crew tried to push the lion up the slope to the stage, they got stuck halfway due to a lack of momentum and had to carefully roll it back down.
In addition, performing is something new to Jensen. Originally part of the NDP show support, he ended up working with the lion after he volunteered to help out with the big props.
“It’s a different experience altogether. I think me and my guys, we have never tried anything similar to this. So I think it was a new experience that we could try altogether as a team,” he said.
“I feel like it’s one of the learning experiences, and I think my guys really enjoy having a bit of spotlight in a way, and participate in NDP, all in all. We don’t participate in NDP every year.”
Jensen and his crew have already put in seven performances in front of a crowd: three combined rehearsals, three National Education shows, and one preview show.
But he still feels nervous each time, he said.
With just one preview left to go, the spectre of the performing on National Day itself looms large. While nervous, Jensen seemed ready for it.
“I think you can say we are both nervous and excited. Nervous is that… are we going to avoid the same mistakes, are we going to get the right timing, are the legs going to be proper on the actual day.
“But… the excitement is every week because – the guys, we are just generally very happy when we get to see the smiles on the audiences’ face. Like when we come out and everybody (has) all the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’,” he said.
So far, each audience they performed seemed very satisfied with the crew’s performance and the lion puppet itself.
“Everyone is just shocked at the sheer size of the lion… The image of the lion – the shimmering image of the lion (looks) very futuristic. From what I hear, everyone is very amazed that it looks a bit like a projector image instead of a real puppet,” he said.
At the end of our interview, I asked Jensen if he had any pointers after watching me struggle with the lion.
Just practice, is all he said.
“When we first started out, we were probably the same as when you first started out… Everyone was messy, there was no coordination between the legs – it looked like it was hopping on one knee.
“But as time goes by, when the guys get more practice... everything just seems to work better.”
He adds that the high morale between the team was what kept them going, despite the blazing hot sun during their afternoon rehearsals.
“The most rewarding part will be the friendship strengthened within my ten guys,” he says. “(It’s already) an honourable experience altogether, but the plus point would be the ten of us – we got much closer because of the time spent together.”
And it is time well-spent. Even as I let the Padang, tired from my brief stint as a lion puppeteer, I can still see the crew rolling back the lion, ready for another round of rehearsals in anticipation of National Day itself.