The Dragon’s Back, the Equal Opportunities Commission, and the Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance

On Saturday I met with a few other Fulbrighters to hike in the Shek O Country Park, where a trail known as the Dragon’s Back stretches north and south along the eastern side of Hong Kong Island. We hiked in the opposite direction than most websites advise, starting in Siu Sai Wan and heading south to the Shek O village and beach. It was a long and challenging four-hour trek with spectacular views and a beautiful beach at the end to cool us down.

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The following day, I went to two public consultations held by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) in their review of the current Discrimination Law. There are currently four separate discrimination laws:

  • Sex Discrimination Ordinance (passed in 1995)
  • Disability Discrimination Ordinance (1995)
  • Family Status Discrimination Ordinance (1997)
  • Race Discrimination Ordinance (2008)

The EOC is reviewing these four laws for the first time since their implementation, and from July 8 to October 7, they are hosting public consultations with various communities and stakeholder groups. I went to the Indonesian meeting in the morning, located at the EOC offices in Taikoo Shing, then to the Thai meeting in the afternoon, located in Kowloon City (also known as Hong Kong’s Little Thailand).

EOC officeBoth meetings were majority-women and majority-foreign domestic worker, and so many of the biggest issues that the audience raised to the EOC representatives were things that the EOC actually has almost no power to intervene in. Apparently in the race discrimination ordinance, there is an exception stating that matters relating to residency and work status would be dealt with by the Immigration Department. Furthermore, unlike other countries such as the UK, where discrimination and human rights abuses are dealt with in one body, in Hong Kong they aren’t. That means that the two-week rule and the live-in requirement – two of the current HK policies on FDWs that makes them incredibly vulnerable to physical abuse, debt bondage, and being overworked – could not be handled by the EOC. The meeting with the Indonesian women felt especially hopeless as they told stories about human rights abuses and police misconduct that they and their friends had experienced.

I regret not having been around earlier in the summer to attend other meetings like with recent mainland immigrants, especially because one possible change to the Law that is being debated is protection based on residency status. This has a lot to do with discrimination against mainlanders – who aren’t of a different race than most Hong Kong people.

Carved fruit and mooncakeThe Indonesian and Thai meetings were already very different from one another, despite the two communities sharing many concerns relating to FDWs. Indonesians statistically are at greater risk of abuse and exploitation, but fewer Thais are FDWs and others have established businesses and families here (as the growth of a Little Thailand suggests). Thus the Indonesian meeting had a more serious and formal tone – also perhaps because of the location in the EOC offices – while the Thai meeting, held at a Thai community center, was slightly more relaxed. Several people in the front of the center were carving fruit as the meeting was held in a back room, and when I left they gave me a mooncake and carved carrots!

中秋節

中秋節 dinner – 9 course meal!

Then Monday was 中秋節 – the Mid-Autumn Festival, a harvest celebration. I had an amazing dinner with my mom’s friend’s family. The next night, I went to the 大坑火龍 (Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance), a 135-year-old tradition. According to the Hong Kong Tourism Board,

All this started a few days before the Mid-Autumn Festival, sometime around 100 years ago. First a typhoon slammed into the fishing and farming community of Tai Hang. This was followed by a plague, and then when a python ate the villagers’ livestock, they said enough was enough. A soothsayer decreed the only way to stop the chaos was to stage a fire dance for three days and nights during the upcoming festival. The villagers made a huge dragon from straw and covered it with incense sticks, which they then lit. Accompanied by drummers and erupting firecrackers, they did what they were told and danced for three days and three nights – and the plague disappeared.

The drummers - admittedly kickass, fierce-looking young women

The drummers – admittedly kickass, fierce-looking young women

The crowd at Tai Hang, a small neighborhood near Causeway Bay with small streets and tons of restaurants, was enormous and well-armed with cameras and phones. The dragon was rather thin and made of straw, but it was astonishingly long, spanning several blocks (some websites say it’s about 200 feet long) – definitely the largest dragon I’ve ever seen. I was pretty bored at first because nothing seemed to be happening other than loud drumming for the first hour. Then finally people began to put long incense sticks into the dragon’s back (插香). One of the older men, holding a fistful of incense, stopped and quickly bowed three times in three directions with the incense in his hands (avoiding putting hot incense in the spectators’ faces) before beginning to insert the sticks into the dragon’s back. When all the incense was in, the dancers yelled, “起!” and lifted the dragon up.

Teaching the young ones how to 插香

Teaching the young ones how to 插香

The main focus of the night was on the largest street, where the dragon danced for a long time on the street as the crowd, held back by barricades, took photos and jostled for the best view. But the most fun and exciting part was when the dancers took off for the smaller, winding streets of Tai Hing – and the crowd chased after them! At first I thought they were just trying to chase it to get a better picture, but then as I followed them (also trying to get a better shot) I realized it was just fun to be chasing after a wild dragon’s tail in the dark streets. Every now and then the dancers would yell, “睇住!” (“Look out!”) and the dancer holding aloft the bushy tail would swipe it along the black street, drawing a burst of red sparks from the incense as the crowd cheered.

Bagpipes and Scottish dancing

After about an hour, the dragon returned to the main street and the dancers began stripping it of the incense, distributing it to the crowd. In the intermission, a group of bagpipers dressed in Scottish garb – kilts, black jackets, hats, everything – began to play, and a troupe of women dressed in tall socks and skirts began to dance in Scottish style!

Incense sticks and the stripped dragon in the back

My night: Incense, dragon, and cameras

I couldn’t understand why they were there. I thought perhaps it had to do with solidarity for Scotland’s bid for independence, but that wouldn’t make any sense in a simple traditional celebration like this. Also, I just watched Infernal Affairs (2002), and at the end a bagpipe plays at a funeral, so perhaps this bagpipes/Scottish thing is just a Hong Kong colonial remnant.

Then the dancers re-feathered the dragon with a new set of incense sticks to repeat the night’s run. I left, happy to have spent my night running after a flaming dragon’s tail in the street with a crowd of camera-trigger-happy festival goers.

Check out the video here!

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