You Will Look Cute and Earn Lots of Money: Examining Variable Authenticities of Lion Dance


You Will Look Cute and Earn Lots of Money: Examining Variable Authenticities of Lion Dance

Nathasha Lee, Yale-NUS College ‘21

(Initially published in YNUJ Volume 3, 2018)


This paper explores how performers of southern Chinese lion dance in Singapore construct lion dance as being an authentic, socially essential aspect of Singaporean Chinese culture to different audiences. The ability of lion dance performers to generate value in their performances which lets them be accepted by different groups of people is significant given social stigma against lion dance from its associations with gang violence which would otherwise delegitimize their performances. Referring to Peirce’s definition of signs as signals referring to objects which interpreters assign to different concepts, I argue that performers communicate authenticity to viewers by manipulating the display of signs recognized as signifiers of authentic lion dance to varying degrees by different audiences. Such signs include gestures by performers in the lion costume, the sequence of accompanying percussion music, and the symbolic arrangement of props.

Fieldwork was conducted during three performances by the Kong Chow Wui Koon Martial Arts and Lion Dance Troupe held on 21 February 2018 to see how each sign was emphasized or downplayed to communicate authenticity to different viewers. The organization was chosen for the strong association with traditional Cantonese martial arts and heritage preservation, which gives troupe members a stronger vested interest in expressing the authenticity of their performances. Martial, ritual and performative characteristics are identified in not just aspects of the performance but also the embodied habitus cultivated by performers. How these characteristics are evoked in different signs is understood differently by different audiences, letting performers communicate the legitimacy of their performance in the convergence of different perspectives of authenticity. Simultaneously, the conscious performance of signs others recognized as authentic bolstered performers’ self-concept of their authenticity as traditional Cantonese.

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