Made in Macao | Drunken Heritage

Jenny Lao-Phillips

A brief survey of tourists in Macao showed that the attraction of our little town is not merely derived from casinos. In fact, the majority of tourists surveyed stated that they came to experience Macao’s cultural heritage. Okay, that’s unfair, I surveyed people around Leal Senado Square, and discovered that no one would openly admit that they came to Macao for the gambling. But it is true that quite a few acquaintances from Hong Kong and the mainland claimed to enjoy visiting Macao during the holidays for the special atmosphere surrounding the heritage buildings, from the Ruins of St. Paul to St. Dominic’s Church to the Cathedral, all the way up to St. Joseph Seminary. However, those who visit Macao for its Historic Centre have been coming less often as the historic atmosphere has been diminished by the crowds and tourists.

Increasingly, cultural tourists are coming for a different kind of heritage in town – the intangible cultural heritage. One of these is the “Feast of Drunken Dragon of the Fish Industry”. This tradition, originally from Guangdong Province, was brought to Macao several years ago and is now practiced by members of the Macao Fish Industry.  It is a festival celebrated on the 8th day of the 4th lunar month every year, which falls on May 3 this year. This tradition is intended to celebrate the Buddha’s birthday and allow people to pray for “Feng Tiao Yu Shun‭ ‬‮-٧=‬ص‮+‬B‮٦٦‬  (meaning timely wind and rain).

The festival begins on the evening of the 7th day of the 4th lunar month with a dinner where members of the fish industry,  historically neighbors on the same seaside, enjoy the “Dragon Head Boat Longevity Rice” together. This rice is believed to bring luck and prosperity along with longevity to those who consume it. The highlight of the festival is the Drunken Dragon Dance performed on the 8th day. Members of the fish industry perform the traditional dragon dance with only the head and tail of the dragon, while drinking strong alcohol – hence, the drunken dragon.

So where did this tradition begin? Legend has it that hundreds of years ago there were a serious plague in the Xiangshan District of Guangdong Province. To save the suffering people, the villagers prayed to the Buddha for help and attempted to carry a large statue of the Buddha into the village. While they were crossing the river, a huge snake appeared from the waters and attacked the villagers. They killed the snake, whose blood stained the entire river. After drinking the bloodied river water, the villagers were healed from their sickness. Believing that the snake was actually a dragon descended from heaven, the villagers performed the dragon dance to commemorate the event.

Most people would agree that what is interesting about this tradition is not the Dragon Dance itself, but that it is to be performed while drunk. I do not understand why the dragon must be drunk, but it does make the dance more interesting. The coordination of the dancers holding different parts to move like the dragon dancing has never been very interesting to me. Unless the dragon parts are very heavy to increase the difficulty of the dance, I don’t see much skill being needed to make the Dragon Dance an exciting performance.

However, it used to amaze me the way the dancers pretended to be drunk and walked like they were almost falling, until I discovered they were actually drunk. Then the dance became a challenge, for it is not easy for dancers to coordinate among themselves after drinking so much. That is probably why the public drinking and spraying of strong Chinese rice wine have successfully attracted tourists  to watch this tradition over the years. So this May, it may not be a bad idea to go downtown and enjoy some drunken heritage.

Categories Opinion