No one can miss Natural Chu. Young, slim and tanned, she’s the lone female drummer in a powerful spectacle dominated by men. As soon as the confident 28-year-old picked up the sticks to rhythmically strike the oversized drums in front of her, the crowd instantaneously turned their heads. This was also how she caught my attention.
Natural works in the movie business. She used to be a stuntwoman and is now involved in film productions. She recently took part in Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut, Tai Chi Man. Away from the big screen, Natural is one of the 10 leaders of the large music team that provides the thunderous drum beats for the famous Tai Hang Fire Dragon Dance at Mid-Autumn Festival. She is the first woman to rise to a music team leadership position in the 133-year history of the Fire Dragon Dance. She is also the highest-ranking female member of the entire squad given the fact that only men can dance the dragon.
“Fai Gor promoted me to the role,” Natural said. The promotion came in 2007, after she had already spent more than 10 years with the squad. Having grown up together in Tai Hang, she and her fellow male dragon dancers form a close-knit band. They know each other’s names despite the huge size of the squad, while in the wider Tai Hang community, Natural is simply known as the ‘Woman Drummer’.
But it turns out that Natural is not just a female drummer: she thinks that possibly, she is also the first woman to have ever danced the Fire Dragon. She made this revelation as I asked her to share her experiences on this century-old ritual, a much-loved tradition that still maintains its discriminatory practices.
“Fai Gor knows (that she’s quietly danced the dragon), and quite a number of people know it too. I respect the rule (the rule against women dancing the dragon); I have no intention to challenge it. But I am also a member, I want to be involved more deeply. However, being a woman means I’m not supposed to do so. Therefore I only did it in the alleys, when most people wouldn’t notice. I don’t want Fai Gor to shout my name into the microphone and order me to leave the dragon. As long as I’m not doing this in front of him, he’ll continue to pretend he’s not aware of it. I only danced the dragon heart (body) because I was very confident that I had sufficient strength to carry it through. I haven’t tried the tail and the head. I will only do it when I am very confident with my ability. I don’t want to cause trouble (to the dragon),” she said.
No one has ever formally told Natural that women cannot be dragon dancers; it is something she became aware of gradually after spending a number of years with the squad. “I have no idea how I found out this rule. I know it, somehow. No one has to say it explicitly. All they have to do is to suggest you join what they say is the right team for you. Think about it, Fai Gor wouldn’t suggest a team that I’m not supposed to join,” she said.
Today, the female drummer lives in Prince Edward. However, her film production commitments regularly take her to other Asian cities. She once lived in the Philippines for nearly two years because of work. But no matter which part of the world she lives and works, she returns to Tai Hang every year for the Fire Dragon Dance. She says there is a magnet inside the dragon that pulls her back year after year. “As a Tai Hang boy, I think it is in our blood,” Natural said. She also contributes her devotion to the intimate inter-personal relationships that that she finds in Tai Hang.
She recounted that she was carrying a bad flu during one of the many Fire Dragon Dances she’s performed in. Luckily, the owner of one of the food stalls along the parade route offered to make her a hot Coca Cola drink with lemon and ginger after he saw her poorly state. She said there was never a moment of loneliness in Tai Hang. “Even when I had to eat my dinner alone, I wouldn’t be lonely because somehow, someone in the cha chaan teng would come to chit chat with me,” she said.
Natural explained that she’s simply got used to calling herself a “Tai Hang boy”. “I think whether it is Tai Hang boy, or Tai Hang girl, the meaning is the same. It is about being a member of the Tai Hang community.”
Although Natural no longer lives in Tai Hang, she still identifies with this quiet area round the back of Causeway Bay. “I am from Tai Hang, or a Tai Hang boy, this has been my self-introduction for a long time. I think we tend to identity with the place and culture that we grew up with, not the place where we are currently living. It is why there are many people in Hong Kong who like to identify themselves with the public housing estate where they used to live. I think it is why when it comes to self-introductions, we say we are from Hong Kong, or we are Hong Kong Chinese. We don’t tell others we are from China,” she said.
Natural hopes she can be a team leader of the dragon head section. She is confident that she can lift up the creature’s head. “I am a team member, I want to contribute as much as I can. Though I’m confident that I can dance the dragon, since I am a girl, I don’t have the opportunity to do so. Sometimes I think about what role I can play in the dragon squad when I am no longer able to play the drum. Or maybe I will lead the lantern team, since I don’t believe the rule that bans woman from dancing the dragon will be relaxed in my generation,” she said.
Q: What do you like the most about Hong Kong?
A: Food diversity. We can have any food we want to eat. I also like our excellent public transport network, it allows us to get to every single part of the city very easily.
Q: What do you dislike the most about Hong Kong?
A: Too many mainland tourists. This is not discrimination. I don’t dislike every one of them. But we have to face the fact that quite a number of them are rude and lack discipline in public spaces. Our culture is so different. Many of them also come here to shop groceries to resell back across the border, that’s why Hong Kong is running out of Yakult and baby milk powder. Hong Kong is very small while there are 1.3 billion people on the mainland, even 10 per cent of them can sink this city.
Q: What does Hong Kong have to do to be sustainable?
A: Hong Kong has to maintain its unique character. We are a free city. Though we are not as polite and clean as the Japanese and Singaporeans, Hong Kong people, in general, are polite and clean. We are tolerant, and we pick up new ideas quickly. Local people are helpful because there is trust in our society, so we wouldn’t get a tragedy like what happened in Foshan with the little girl who got run over twice yet not a single passer-by stopped to help her. We have to keep all these good qualities. We can’t become a mainland city. They should learn and respect our culture. I am not sure how feasible it is that they learn our culture, or that we have the right to issue travel visas to mainland visitors.