Jan 15, 2011
Lion king of dance
Despite few orders, Henry Ng still cannot bear to give up making lion dance costumes
When lion dance troupes in Singapore want quality, handmade lion dance costumes, they head for a nondescript five-room HDB flat in Ang Mo Kio.
There, in that flat-cum-workshop, Mr Henry Ng, 52, has been making such customised suits for 15 years. The father of three creates them from scratch with materials such as bamboo, high-fibre paper, cloth, and rabbit and sheep fur. Skeletal bamboo structures of lion heads are strewn among pliers and paints. Completed, stylised big cat heads sit around, wrapped in plastic.
You might say Mr Ng and his cloth lions are an endangered species. 'In the 1990s, I used to make more than 100 lions in a year. Sometimes, I could not meet the demand. Now, I usually make 30 to 40 lions a year,' he says in Mandarin.
This is mainly down to mass-produced, imported lion costumes from China, which cost a fraction of the $1,200 to $1,900 he charges for each lion. Foreign lions are easily purchased from suppliers in places such as Jurong and Tampines, or online.
The lion-maker notes: 'Many of the makers in China do not have experience in lion dance. They are made in factories and the more they make, the more money they get. So the quality is not as good.'
Lion dance costume maker Mr Henry Ng on the cheaper, mass-produced imported lion costumes from China -- ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG
The availability of cheaper alternatives has taken its toll on craftsmen such as Mr Ng. When he first started, there were about 10 other full-time makers here. Now, he reckons he is the only one left.
Mr Ng, who began training in lion dance at the age of 13, taught himself how to make the costumes by dismantling damaged lions. It started as a hobby before he turned it into a profession in 1995.
Since then, he has made about 2,000 lions - many of which have been used in national and international competitions. It takes him five days or less to make a lion, with each lasting 15 years or more.
While he makes the lion heads himself, he outsources the sewing of the lion's body to a tailor, who puts it together based on Mr Ng's instructions.
Even so, he takes pride in his work. He makes his own glue to ensure that the different layers stick together and takes pains to meet customers' requests. He says, matter-of-factly: 'You have to give the customer what he wants. If he pays more than $1,000 for your lion and it falls apart after a few steps, he will run away.'
He is able to sustain his business through a mix of orders for lions made by him and cheaper lions made by his helper in China whom he personally trained. The family income is supplemented by his wife Nancy, 49, who works in an air cargo warehouse.
Regular customers include Mr Kenny Ng, 43, coach of Wei Jin Dragon And Lion Dance Association. He started patronising Mr Ng's business 15 years ago and now orders at least two lions a year.
'If I buy one lion from Henry, I can buy four from China,' says the coach. But, he adds: 'His lions are better, more durable and beautiful. He is a former lion dancer, so he knows what is required.'
One detail that does not escape the local craftsman is that lion dance is primarily about strength, so the costumes must be light enough to wield.
Lion dance instructor Nicholas Cheong, 37, notes that it is also easier to repair locally made lions since he can go straight to the maker.
The manager of 10-year-old Xin Cheng Events And Entertainment, a lion dance troupe, says: 'Singapore lions are much closer to our style and the quality will also be better in terms of the workmanship. Henry will customise what you want and the quality is there, that's why we go to him.'
Mr Ng's customers consist of mainly lion dance troupes who are taking part in competitions and businesses who want something special to represent them at corporate events. For example, beer brand ABC Extra Stout recently commissioned him to create a pair of Golden Prosperity Lions (above) as part of its celebrations for the upcoming Chinese New Year. With special features such as intricate golden embroidery and a golden cap with a fine silver layer, the lions took him two weeks to make and are valued at $15,000.
The lions will be making appearances at various food centres in the heartland during the festive period. He says tricky assignments such as the ABC lions are what keep him going: 'I prefer to take on more challenging jobs as they give me a sense of satisfaction. That's how I have been able to carry on till today.'
Asked how long he intends to continue in the business, he admits he considered changing jobs two years ago due to falling demand.
His children, the oldest of whom is still in secondary school, have little interest in his craft. 'My children are not interested in lion dance at all. When I am making the lions, they don't even come and watch,' he laments.
But the lion's den will not be going quiet anytime soon. 'So long as there is still demand, I will continue making lions,' he says. 'I can't bear to give it up.'
'Many of the makers in China do not have experience in lion dance. They are made in factories and the more they make, the more money they get. So the quality is not as good'
Lion dance costume maker Henry Ng on the cheaper, mass-produced lion costumes from China