4 December 2023

Explainer: ‘White’ lions seen in Hong Kong’s nightlife campaign are not mourning lions

Pictures of finance chief Paul Chan standing with a “white” dancing lion went viral online. Many people mistakenly thought it was a “mourning” lion costume used in funerals.

The Hong Kong government launched its “Night Vibes Hong Kong” campaign on Sept. 14, with a half-hour ceremony officiated by Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po. The fanfare included a number of performances, most notably an LED lion dance show.

Following the ceremony, numerous social media posts (here, here and here) said the lion costume used in the performance was white, a color traditionally reserved for “mourning lions” used in funerals to bid farewell to the dead.

Some local media reported citizens were “shocked” to see white lions in the celebratory event while Deputy Financial Secretary Michael Wong Wai-lun said on a radio program that the lion costumes were fluorescent in color, not white.

A spokesperson from the government’s Information Services Department told Annie Lab in an email that they were silver lions. According to the explanation, the color combinations of the three performing lions “were most suitable for the LED effect and highlighted the vibrant elements of nightlife.”

The spokesperson indicated that these lions had “previously appeared in large-scale performances in public.”

Annie Lab reached out to the group of lion dance performers who appeared in the show but they turned down our interview request.

‘Design details and dance distinguish the lions’

Annie Lab talked to Hui Ka-hung, a local lion dance costume maker with over 30 years of experience. He said the lions in the show were obviously in silver and for celebration.

“The differences between a mourning lion and the one in the performance are distinct,” the master of lion costume said. “I guess no one in this field will dare to say that it was a filial lion.”

Mourning lions, also known as filial lions (孝獅) in Chinese, are usually colored in a combination of white and black, and sometimes blue, according to Hui. These three colors are commonly used in Chinese funerals.

He said the red features found on the costume in the ceremony, such as the red fluffy nose, are not commonly used for filial lions.

An example of a silver lion head provided by Hui Ka-hung.

In traditional Chinese culture, lion dance performances can be seen on various occasions.

The lion costumes have different colors and decorations suited for their purposes.

In Hong Kong, they are often performed during joyful events such as opening ceremonies, weddings, celebrations, and festivals with brightly colored costumes — in red and yellow, for example.

Funeral lions (right) have a white flower bulb on the top of their heads and do not have any red color. The “silver” lion (left) has a  colored flower bulb; its nose, tongue, and neck are also red. (Sources: Information Services Department, Hui Ka-hung, YouTube)

“Even if the costume is in white, it doesn’t necessarily refer to a mourning lion,” Hui added.

“We sometimes dance a snow lion (雪獅) which is also in white. Color does not always indicate the purpose of lion dance.”

At the launch event, the LED lights on the lion costumes were also turned into sharp colors like yellow and red, which can be seen in the official livestream (from 13:27 to 16:08).

The LED lights on the dancing lion was turned into yellow. (Source: Information Services Department)

Hui believes the plain “silver” color of the costumes was designed to make the LED lights stand out during the show.

Mourning lions mourn, dancing lions dance

He said the difference between a funeral lion and a regular lion is shown through their dance performances.

Funeral lions look forlorn as they perform movements that depict mourning, such as kneeling and worshiping to pay respect and bid farewell to the deceased.

Droopy-eyed funeral lions kowtowing in mourning. (Source: YouTube)

“Those used in funerals have unique facial expressions like droopy eyelids with their heads dropped,” said Hui.

Meanwhile, the LED lion dance performance during the government’s ceremony involved energetic movements similar to the ones for joyful occasions.

Traditional lion dance performance. (Source: YouTube)
The three LED lions dancing at the Night Vibes Hong Kong launch ceremony. (Source: Information Services Department)

Annie Lab also found that similar performances have been recorded at different events in the past, including the international Gala Dinner of the Jockey Club in 2020.