Coming from a somewhat sedate Singapore where, despite its rich multi-cultural make-up, religious and cultural celebrations are generally calm and controlled affairs, finding myself caught in one of the many colourful street celebrations that take place in the countries around is always an experience to remember. I was in Macau recently to catch not just one, but two of the larger celebrations that takes place on the streets of the former Portuguese colony around the month of May. The first, perhaps more of a calm and contemplative affair, the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, takes place on 13 May every year. The second is celebrated with a drunken frenzy on the streets. That, the feast of the Drunken Dragon, takes place every year on the 8th day of the 4th Chinese lunar month which fell on 17 May this year.
The festival, Tchoi Long Chit (醉龍節 or 醉龙节) – as it is spelled in Cantonese in Macau, would have its roots in neighbouring Zhongshan, Guangdong Province where it is thought to have been celebrated since the Song Dynasty and may have been celebrated in Macau since the reign of Emperor Kangxi during the Qing Dynasty based on information at the website of the Macau Government Tourist Office (MGTO) and is described in the following manner:
… a very strange festival if compared with the other major Chinese festivals. It dates from the misty past from the Kangxi Kingdom of the Qing Dynasty. Praying to the Buddha for help against a disastrous plague, villagers were carrying his statue when suddenly a giant python leaped out of the river on to the bank, blocking the way. A Buddhist monk slashed at the monster, cutting it into three pieces which were tossed into the river.
The pieces writhed about and then, amid a great wind and thunder, they flew up into the sky. Miraculously, the people recovered from the plague and the turf which has been stained with the creature’s blood proved to be unusually fertile. Believing that they had been saved by a divine dragon, the people carved its image and at the annual festival when the Buddha is bathed they drank wildly and danced with the dragon.
The fishermen associations organize this festival, which start in the morning in the Kuan Tai Temple near S. Domingos Market (near Senado Square), where men perform a drunken dance with wooden heads and tails of a dragon. Then, they go on the direction of the Inner Harbour and pay a visit some shops and piers on the waterfront. At each stop they drink wine until they are not able to go on. All the participants and observers end the day with a great dinner.
The celebration in Macau of the “strange” festival sees participants start with prayers and blessings at the Sam Kai Vui Kun or Kuan Tai Temple – about half an hour before a ceremony proper is held in a tent in Senado Square at 9 am. It is at the temple where participants collect the two dragon pieces in pairs – at which many are already visibly intoxicated, downing cans of beer and blowing mouthfuls of the liquid into the air – making for a spectacle best observed up close as both observers and jostling photographers (and their equipment) risk getting a splashing from the alcohol laden spray and mist that is propelled into the air.
The ceremony in Senado Square is one at which the participants are introduced before lion dance lions have their eyes dotted to bring them to life after which the participants perform a dance ritual in a prelude to the drunken journey through the streets.
At this point, the participants seem to already have difficulty keeping upright – that however does not stop them from getting organised before the journey through the cobblestone streets begins, the younger ones – some boys, lead the procession in a martial art inspired dance, wooden dragons in hand. Even on the move, the action does not stop – the men continue to down jars of wine, spraying some of the contents of the jars into the air. As they make their way, occasionally taking a wrong turn, they stop at shops where offerings placed on stools are left at the entrances, moving the dragons in a way that made it appear that they were greedily devouring what was left on the stools. The dragons enter the shops before continuing on their way – a dancing lion dance takes the place vacated as firecrackers are lit as those in the crowd put their hands over their ears in anticipation.
I follow for a distance, reeking of not just of the sticky alcoholic residue a deposit of which was left on my skin, clothes and equipment but also of the mix of perspiration and rain which fell earlier that I was completely drenched in. After some three quarters of an hour running after the drunken men I decided to break away. Despite the sticky mess my equipment and I were in, I would have most willingly continued if it wasn’t for a gluttony motivated bus ride I wanted to make to Fernando’s in Hac Sa Beach in Coloane – after which the Tam Kong Festival celebrations in Coloane Village beckoned. The very unique way in which the festival is celebrated must count as one of my more memorable experiences and one which I certainly am thankful to have remained sober enough to have been able to observe.
Information on the festival and its origins:
Drunken Dance (about the origins of the festival in Zhongshan)
Feast of Drunken Dragon (China Central Television – CCTV video report)