Enter the young dragons

Michael Bueza
Drawn by the roaring Chinese drums and the banging cymbals, they dance and sway to the rhythm. Being Chinese dragon dancers has become their life.

'MY TURN!'. Jerwin (3rd from left) waits for his turn at the drumsticks. All photos by Leanne Jazul/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – At the corner of Masangkay and Piedad streets deep inside Chinatown in Binondo, Manila, a group of children gathered around a huge Chinese drum.

Jerwin got hold of the drumsticks again and started striking the drum. Another boy stood beside him and clapped cymbals together, in sync with the beat of the drum.

The instruments were old and worn out, but the kids’ enthusiasm was as resounding, enduring and seemingly never-ending as the rhythm they created.

Some of them, along with young adults, are members of the Golden Dragons dance group. They will be dragon dancers who will slither through the streets of Binondo on Chinese New Year, January 31. Some will carry lion heads, while others will form the Chinese dragon, the main attraction.

Following tradition, Chinese families and businessmen in Chinatown will “feed” the lions and dragons with ampao, or red envelopes containing cash. It is said that the more they give, the more blessings and good luck they would receive.

Supervising the Golden Dragons is 24-year-old Jason Cedeño. He is unemployed, but he considers managing the group as his job. On a Saturday afternoon, he was repairing the head of a dragon.

Wala kaming practice ngayon eh. Nag-aayos pa rin kami ng mga gamit sa sayaw. Tsaka alam na rin naman nila ‘yung sayaw,” said Jason. (We don’t have practice today. We’re still preparing our props for the dance. Besides, they know the dance already.)

Indeed. When Jason left for a while to buy aluminum wire, one boy picked up the dragon head. He made the dragon’s eyes “blink” as his head and body swayed to the music.

A teenager then went behind the boy, held him on the waist, and lifted him up the air. The kid made the dragon’s mouth flap open, as if it were talking.

When Jason returned, the dragon head was back where he left it. He knew the kids played with it while he was gone. They couldn’t help it.

QUICK FIXES. Jason repairs one of the dragon heads that the group will be using.

Watch and learn

Jason has been participating in dragon dances for over a decade. His first dance was at the age of 9, but just at home, with a box carton as a makeshift dragon head. Two of his brothers are into dragon dancing themselves.

Nagsimula ako sa pagtambul-tambol, tulad ng mga bata. Natutunan ko ang pagsayaw sa panonood ko sa ibang dancers.” (I started by playing the drums, like these kids. I learned the dances while watching other dancers.) He still dances from time to time.

Now, he is the group’s “handler,” trusted by a Chinese businessman who calls for them when needed. Depending on the event – a contract, said Jason – his group can be as small as 5 people or as big as 20. The members of his group are between 11 to 24 years old.

Hindi lang tuwing Chinese New Year kami sumasayaw. Ini-invite din kami ng Chinese temples, at nagpe-perform sa TV or out of town. Minsan nga, sa birthday parties din.” 

(We dance not only during Chinese New Year. We are also invited by Chinese temples, and perform on TV shows or out of town. Sometimes, we dance in birthday parties, too.)

Like Jason, the kids were self-taught, and started at a young age. “Ako po, 8 years old nung unang sumali,” said Jerwin, who is now 11. (Me, I was 8 years old when I first joined.)

15-year-old Kier shares the same story. “Sumasama lang po ako dati sa kanila, nanonood, noong 10 years old ako. Hanggang sa nasubukan ko na rin po mismo.” (I was just tagging along with them, watching them, when I was 10. Later on, I tried it myself.) The drums were his first “gig,” too.

Even Jason’s two nephews join in on the fun. “Nakikita nila ako, kung anong ginagawa naming mga tiyuhin nila. Kung anong alam namin, tinuturo namin sa mga pamangkin ko para matuto sila.” (My nephews see me, what we, their uncles, do. So what we know, we teach them so that they will learn.)

All for fun

YOUNG DRAGONS. Jason (L) and 11-year-old Jerwin (R) perform their Chinese dragon dance routines in Divisoria Market, Manila on January 30, 2014, the eve of Chinese New Year.

For kids like Jerwin, Kier and Jason’s nephews, dragon-dancing serves as their pastime. “Masarap po kasi sa pakiramdam. At tsaka naaaliw ‘yung mga tao,” said Kier. (It feels good when we dance. And the people are amused, entertained.)

The kids said their parents have no problem with them joining the dances.

Natutuwa rin po sila. Minsan, nagbibigay ako sa kanila ng pera mula sa hati ko sa nakolekta namin. Nagtatabi rin po ako para sa akin, pambili ng mga bagong damit, baon ko sa school,” shared Kier. (My parents are happy, too. Sometimes, I give them a part of my share from the group’s collection. I save money for myself, too, for new clothes, and for my provisions in school.)

Jason clarified that the kids attend practices and are thus in the parade only when they are available. “Yung ibang bata, kapag may klase o exam, hindi naman sila maka-absent, kasi number one talaga ang pag-aaral. Every year lang naman ito eh, tsaka kapag may contract.” (Some kids, if they have classes or exams, they can’t be absent because their studies are the number one priority. Besides, this is just once a year, and when they are contracted to dance.)

The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) says that kids participating in dragon dances is all right and shouldn’t raise alarms. “This is like what kids do during Christmas, when they go house-to-house for Christmas carols. It’s all for the sake of merriment, not for the sake of work,” said Teresita del Rosario of DOLE’s Bureau of Workers with Special Concerns.

“It shouldn’t affect the children’s studies, health or general welfare. Otherwise, if it is found to be detrimental to the children’s development, their handlers would be in violation of Republic Act 9231, which defines and metes punishment for child labor,” added Del Rosario.

“The Chinese dragon dance is a custom, a traditional activity. It’s not dangerous for the kids,” she explained further.

If it were dangerous, the kids wouldn’t flock to that street corner and be drawn to the booming of the drums. If it were, they wouldn’t be waiting to get their turns on the drumsticks and cymbals. 

Their nearly-automatic response to the sounds is amazing, even infectious. An audio cue to go with the flow and have fun. Perhaps unconsciously, even you would start tapping your foot and shaking your body, discreetly or otherwise, to the beat. 

For Jerwin, Kier, and the rest of the kids, the roaring Chinese drums and the banging cymbals brought them to the dance. For Jason, the delight and the spectacle brought by the Chinese dragon dance will keep him there. 

Buhay ko na ‘to.” (This has become my life.) – Rappler.com

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Michael Bueza

Michael is a data curator under Rappler's Tech Team. He works on data about elections, governance, and the budget. He also follows the Philippine pro wrestling scene and the WWE. Michael is also part of the Laffler Talk podcast trio.