King of lion heads


Master Siow Ho Phiew at his exhibition on
Tan Hiok Nee Cultural Street, Johor Baru
Wearing a black T-shirt and blue jeans, Master Siow Ho Phiew, 56, looks fighting fit.  Sporting close-shaven hair and a flowing beard, he even resembles a traditional kung fu master or sifu.  Siow is in Johor Baru as a guest artiste on Tan Hiok Nee Cultural Street with an exhibition and demo in the art of making of lion heads during the 8th Johor Baru Arts Festival. 

This renowned martial arts master and lion dance exponent has put Malaysia on the map of lion dance circles because wherever there are lion dance troops in the world, there you will find Made in Malaysia lion heads – proudly made by WSH Dragon & Lion Arts – a business founded by Siow.  Through his lion dancing skills and special art, Siow is keeping alive an important cultural legacy and contributing to Malaysian culture heritage.

Thirty years of practicing kung fu and training award-winning lion dance troops is evident in his lithe movements as he sat down to demonstrate how flexible lengths of rattan are secured with adhesive tape and fastened onto an aluminum base frame.  His sinewy biceps rippled as he lifted the structure up to show how light this version is compared to traditional lion head frames that were made with bamboo strips.  These quality lion heads have now gained worldwide acceptance because they are not only lighter but more lasting. 


Lion head and costume exhibits
Born in Pulau Ketam, Selangor, to a family involved in poultry and fruit farming, Siow was a farmer with a hobby in lion dancing and Shaolin kung fu since he was 18.  He became a kung fu master when he was only 24 and at age 30, he gave up farming to focus on his lifelong passion for lion dance.  Interestingly, his life-changing decision was made not after years of pondering but after a wild bees attack.

“Bees! I was stung all over by bees!” Siow said, recalling the horror and how the serious attack caused him to be hospitalized.  After this traumatic experience, he was convinced that he should leave farming for good to pursue his passion in lion dance.

In 1978, Siow and some friends formed their own lion dance troop called Kok Ngai Lion Dance Troop, and because the lion head bought from China was so well used and beyond repair, they decided to create one of their own. 

He remembers how he took apart an old lion head to understand its structure and materials before he began modifying those ideas and made his own with local materials.  After experimenting with various materials, he discovered that using sustainable rattan and self-adhesive tape has inherent merits over traditional methods.


Master Siow demonstrating the construction
of a lion head frame with rattan
His passion for lion dancing did not wane with his foray into creating lion heads but developed further when he got involved in organizing the first National Lion Dance Championship in 1983.  He was also instrumental in organizing the inaugural World Lion Dance Championship in 1984 which continues to have pride of place in the global lion dance circuit as the most prestigious lion dance competition in the world. 

“You can’t change tradition!” Siow mimicked the words of his critics who were doubtful about his work when the early version of his lion head came out.  He recalls boldly challenging them to give him reasons why he should not change tradition if it was for the better.  

Making a lion head for their own troop was interesting and fun but to make it for others was something else.  So in 1986, Siow set up his lion head making business and the demand for his lion heads, locally and abroad, gradually increased to about 500 units each year.  Looking back with satisfaction now, Siow said, “Looks like I didn’t make a mistake, eh?”


A lion head frame made from rattan and aluminum
His expertise is often sought because he’s an authority in lion dance and Siow is also a qualified judge for competitions.  He has trained various Malaysian lion dance troops like the award-winning Kun Seng Keng troop from Muar, Selangor Kuan Loke, Kedah Hong Tek, Sabah Hong Tek and Sarawak Limbang Hong Tek.  Siow also trains overseas troops in Hong Kong, Taiwan, the United States, Australia, Canada and Mexico. 

“When a lot of people say my lion heads are good, then only will I acknowledge that they are good,” said Siow, still modest about his achievements. 

Some people commented that if his lion heads were so durable, then he will not have regular business but Siow is confident that his brand, established for fine quality handmade lion heads, will remain popular simply through word of mouth. 


Master Siow with Dato Shahrir Abdul Samad [Left]
and Tan Chai Puan [Right] at the exhibition
When his exhibition opened at No. 49 Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, Johor Baru on 9 July, it attracted many curious visitors including JB Arts Festival patron and Member of Parliament for Johor Baru, Dato’ Shahrir Abdul Samad, and Tan Chai Puan, Director of the Teochew Eight Districts Association.  The exhibition is open daily at 10am from now till 17 July 2011. 

For more info about the sifu and his art, visit website: www.wansenghang.com

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 18 July 2011

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