Kylin dance skills passed down generations

The Múa lân (kylin dance) is often performed by the ethnic Hoa (Chinese-Vietnamese) who account for around 4 per cent of HCM City’s population. Many of them live in Chợ Lớn (Big Market) in District 5. The dance is usually performed to bring luck and happiness during Tết (Lunar New Year), Mid-Autumn Festival, and at ceremonies to open a new business or build a new house.

HCM City has dozens of professional dance troupes, including leading troupes Nhơn Nghĩa Đường and Kiến Thắng Đường of Chợ Lớn (Big Market) in District 5 with 100-200 performers each. But Long Nhi Đường, a smaller troupe from District 8, is especially distinctive because its members are mostly poor children.

The troupe offers both new and traditional dances by members aged between 6 and 17 who are orphans or were homeless in the past.  

“I decided to set up Long Nhi Đường 10 years ago. At that time, dance troupes refused to include children because performances can be difficult and dangerous,” Lê Văn Nam, founder and leader of Long Nhi Đường, said.

Nam was once a street kid who earned money by shining shoes, selling lottery tickets and collecting rubbish in Chợ Lớn.   

When he was 14 years old, he worked as a trainee for Tinh Võ Đường, a kylin dance troupe in District 8.

Impressed by Nam’s size, which was bigger than kids of his age, the owner hired him straightaway.

One year later, he asked his master if he could leave the troupe and establish his own children’s troupe.

“I dreamed of setting up a troupe for poor kids, so I spent all my savings to buy a paper/fabric kylin head. The work was difficult, but I told myself to never give up,” Nam said.  

Long Nhi Đường’s first dancers were street kids aged 9-13 who travelled around the streets of Chợ Lớn offering free performances. Audiences gave the dancers food, clothes and small amounts of money.

Nam and his staff, who were mostly self-taught, also learned from professional performers in bigger troupes who wanted to help the kids earn a living from dance performances.  

“Love, sharing and kindness are the good things that we gained from our masters and older colleagues,” said the 26-year-old. 

Because of financial support received from organisations and individuals, 20 of the performers are now living in a house on Lương Ngọc Quyến Street in the city’s District 8.

“My parents are poor. I joined Long Nhi Đường four years ago to perform kylin dances for a living. Last year, I sent my mom VNĐ2 million (US$90) from my savings,” said performer Trần Quốc Trí, 14, who lives in the outlying district of Bình Chánh. 

“The Lân (kylin) is a symbol of power, wisdom and good fortune. It chases away evil spirits and brings happiness, longevity and good luck. To be a skilled performer, I have to devote my mind and body to the dance. This helps me become stronger and more confident,” he said. 

Trí and his peers perform modern dances featuring ông địa (God of Earth) and dragon dancing together. 

They spend time learning the art at night and perform dances at cultural centres and companies on the weekends. They spend their wages and money from gifts on food, clothes and costumes, among other items.

In the morning, they attend charity classes offered by volunteers at District 11’s Phú Thọ Gymnasium. They study English with foreign teachers and play football and swim at the gym.   

“The performers of Long Nhi Đường are required to go to these classes,” said Nam. “Kylin/dragon dancers should be educated and need to be professional in their art. Studying is the only key that can open their future.”   

Tale of kylins

The kylin dance of the ethnic Hoa in Chợ Lớn consists of both traditional and modern performances.

Featured traditional dances include Cao Không Hái Lộc (Kylin takes gifts) and Lân Lên Mai Hoa Thung (Kylin climbs mountains), which use at least 10 performers each.    

In Cao Không Hái Lộc, dancers carry a small bag of money (offered by customers) over their shoulders at a height of 13-15 metres.

The lead dancer, who wears a kylin head, takes the bag with his mouth.

One of the outstanding performers of this traditional dance is Lưu Hoàn Phi of the Nhơn Nghĩa Đường Troupe.

In the Lân Lên Mai Hoa Thung dance, a kylin head is taken to the highest mountain.

During the dance, the performer has to jump from the lowest pole of one metre high to the highest one of 1.7 metres. There are 10 poles spaced metres apart.

Skilled performers spend two years practising this difficult dance.

Masters of the dance and veteran performers at leading troupes have taught these techniques and skills to younger generations for hundreds of years.  

With modern dance performances, martial art is featured. Martial art master Châu Chí Hùng of the Trung Nghĩa Đường Troupe, for example, uses his bare hands to chop a durian or a brick into two pieces.

The Thắng Nghĩa Đường Troupe is famous for its coconut-breaking performances.

Over the last 40 years of the troupe’s existence, Huỳnh Chí Dân and Huỳnh Gia Bửu have been the only members of the troupe who can perform the act.

Both actors use their chanters (a large musical instrument) to break a coconut into small pieces.

“Using hands to break a coconut is not difficult. Using chanters is the height of the art,” said martial art master Bửu.

Kylin dance performers wear costumes in black and white to indicate a balance between âm (yin) and dương (yang), and a red fabric belt which symbolises their passion for martial arts.

During the Tết (Lunar New Year) holidays, they use the colour red to bring luck, and play different drums to excite audiences. They also perform as circus artists.

“In the 1980s, I lived in a small alley of Lương Nhữ Học Street in Chợ Lớn. I first watched a kylin dance performed by the Nhơn Nghĩa Đường Troupe during Lunar New Year festival when I was a 13 years old,” said Phan Hồng Hải of Tân Bình District.

“I thought kylins were real until I saw the performers take the papier-mâché kylin heads and clothes out!” he added. “I’ll never forget the sight and sound of the dances.”

“Hotels, companies and restaurants often invite kylin dance troupes to perform during Tết because they want to welcome the new year and have luck for the entire year. After watching a kylin dance on the street by chance, visitors will have good luck in their life and career,” he said. 

“The kylin dance of the Hoa in Chợ Lớn is a mixture of dance, martial art and passion. I think the Vietnamese dragon dance art has developed very well,” said master Lưu Kiếm Xương, head of Nhơn Nghĩa Đường, who has more than 30 years of experience.

The Nhơn Nghĩa Đường troupe was establised in 1973. Since the 1990s, it has won several top prizes at international kylin dance festivals.

In 2000, the troupe won the second prize at the International Kylin Dance Contest in Thailand, and in 2008, it received the third prize at the International Kylin Dance Festival in Malaysia, following the top winners Malaysia and Singapore.

Earlier this year, the Tinh Anh Đường troupe from HCM City won first prize at the 11th International Lion Dance Competition in Singapore.


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