SINGAPORE: In a quiet corner of an HDB block in Jurong, dragons are being brought to life.
Behind the doors of his flat, Mr Lee Kok Wee makes dragon dance props for Chinese New Year festivities every year.
According to Mr Lee, he is one of the few remaining craftsmen in Singapore making such costumes as most have retired due to old age.
Working on the props part-time, the 39-year-old has made more than 30 dragons since he first started in 1999, and his love for the mythical Chinese lions and dragons started when he was a nine-year-old boy.
With desire to assemble his own dragon, Mr Lee began consulting many of his peers which led him to his mentor Mr Ting Wan Kee Roger about eight years ago. Mr Ting is the secretary and head coach of Singapore Dragon and Lion Athletic Association.
“My first dragon took me about two weeks to make,” Mr Lee told Channel NewsAsia in Mandarin. “Back then, we had to manually paint the scales of the dragon on its body. We didn't have the luxury of using silkscreen printing then.”
In the past, Chinese dragons sold in Singapore would cost at least S$5,000. But these days, a dragon is easily available for as little as S$1,500, as neighbouring countries like Vietnam and China are also manufacturing them.
“The economy is not doing well. People are not as willing to part with their money as before. So if a dragon can be sold cheaper, why would people not welcome that?” asked Mr Lee.
SOARING DEMANDS, DECLINING PROP MAKERS
In dragon years in the Chinese zodiac, such as 2000 and 2012, there could be up to 30 orders for dragons to be used during Chinese New Year house visits, Mr Ting told Channel NewsAsia .
But if there is still demand for dragons, why then are there few makers left in Singapore?
“Dragon making is not for everyone,” the 60-year-old mentor explained in Mandarin. “You need to have artistic talent and creativity. You also have to understand the Chinese culture and it helps if you’re a dragon dancer.”
“Most importantly, you need to have patience,” he added.
Prop makers previously had to painstakingly shave and file the thicker sticks of rattan before being crafted into the desired structure of the dragon’s head, which took approximately two weeks to complete. In recent times, however, thin strips of rattan have been replaced and the head of the dragon can be done in a matter of days.
And Mr Ting is pleased with the simplified processes of making a dragon. “For instance, if you were to make or paint the dragon costume from 8am to 6pm every day, you need at least a month to do it. And there are only 12 months in a year, which means you can only make 12 dragons in a year,” he explained.
“And in that year if there are 30 orders for a dragon dance costume, you simply cannot take in all the orders,” added Mr Ting.
With silkscreen printing, it helps shave off preparation time too. In just two days, the scales can be stamped on the body of the dragon. “With no customisation or special requests that is,” Mr Lee said.
Meanwhile, with neighbouring countries are also dabbling into the dragon making industry, it aggravates the dying trade in Singapore. “In just Guangzhou alone, there are at least 10 factories manufacturing these dragons,” Mr Ting said.
“They can do the exact same design as us, and if you include shipping costs, the prices will still be lower than the ones sold in Singapore,” he added.
A representative from Shen Fu Shan dragon and lion dance troupe, Mr Tay Chong Beng, also agreed that it is cheaper to purchase these Chinese dragons from the regional market.
Basic designs can be had for about S$1,000 in China and can climb up to S$2,000 or S$3,000 for the more exquisite ones, according to the 52-year-old dance troupe representative.
“We’ve stopped buying them in Singapore as there are cheaper ones like those from China,” Mr Tay said in Mandarin, although he testified that the local ones are more durable. “There are more options to choose from too.”
“We only use them during Chinese New Year and we dispose them thereafter,” he explained. “And if we use the ones made in Singapore, we tend to keep and use them again but customers will be unhappy, as they will know we’ve recycled them. So, it’s better to use new ones.”
CONSUMERS EXPECTING GOLD STANDARD
To keep pace with changing times and shifting expectations of consumers, dragon dance props makers in Singapore have to offer a plethora of choices too.
“Singaporeans used to be easygoing,” Mr Ting said. “As long as the colours of the dragon are not in black or dull colours like blue, customers are generally fine with it.”
But it seems that Singaporeans want more than that lately.
“People like gold or luminous colours now,” he added. Based on Chinese customs, gold represents money, which means ushering in luck and prosperity.
Faded lions and dragons used at Chinese New Year house visits were previously acceptable too. “Not anymore,” Mr Ting said. “People are more particular and will be unhappy if you use old props at their house.”
With less than a handful of dragon dance props makers left in Singapore, what would Mr Ting do should a keen student approach him? “The character of the student is most important,” he answered. “If he’s not going to be teachable then why would I want to waste my time on him?”
“There will be some who seek to learn but wouldn’t have the patience to make. And there are those who do not have the customer base after learning the ropes. If you’ve no business then it means no opportunity to show off the dragon you’ve made,” he added.
“When it comes to doing business, it is very important to deliver your products on time and in good condition. I have high standards,” Mr Ting said. “If the quality of the dragon is not up to my expectations, it has to be redone. If you sell it and people are unhappy, people may never buy from you again because that’s how word of mouth works.”