Toward a Programming Paradigm of Art Festivals in Rural Areas: A Case Study of the Fire Dragon Dance
By: Jeff Leung Chin-fung
Translated by: Jacqueline Leung
The Mid-Autumn Festival fire dragon dance is one of Hong Kong’s traditional folk customs believed to drive away disease and bring peace. (Note 1) In 2014, a group of Ping Yeung villagers formed a grassroots organisation, the ‘Ta Kwu Ling Ping Che Protection Alliance’, and held a fire dragon dance ceremony near the village as a peaceful means to protest against the government’s decision to turn one of Ta Kwu Ling’s unused farms into a live poultry inspection centre. The centre was devised to control the spread of bird flu at the time, but the government failed to raise the plan for consultation with the villagers, who were concerned about issues of noise and hygiene. One of the villagers, Wong Chi-keung, who used to live in Pok Fu Lam Village, is a master of making fire dragons, and so the idea of holding a fire dragon dance ceremony to combat disease — in this case, the arrangement brought about by the bird flu — was conceived. (Note 2) In 2015, the first Ping Che fire dragon dance ceremony was held. Since then, it has become an annual occurrence and is part of a wider art festival, comprising fire dragon making workshops, music concerts, and elderly home visits, which revitalises the village and preserves its cultural heritage.
In Hong Kong, art festivals are often planned with the aim of revitalising old areas. In order to promote the values of their village and to emphasise the importance of its existence, (Note 3) villagers refashioned Ping Che with murals and organised the annual Ping Che fire dragon dance ceremony. (Note 4) In addition to the ceremony, the festival program includes fire dragon making workshops, parades, and music concerts, creating opportunities for the wider community to get acquainted with the village. The fire dragon making workshops encourage volunteers and students to learn about the traditional craft while the parades pass through neighboring villages and elderly homes, providing entertainment for residents. The music concert, taking place after the fire dragon dance ceremony, concludes the series of events. Strictly speaking, the newly established tradition of the fire dragon dance ceremony was conceived as a way for villagers to assert their demands. However, by inviting women and people from outside the village to participate in the festivities, the fire dragon dance ceremony also signifies a step forward from when only male villagers were allowed to partake in the ritual. Over time, the festival has created a community and friendship between villagers and visitors, like in the cases of sound designer Sze Ka-yan and photographer John Choy, who started out as participants and are now two of the program’s core organisers.
Rural art festivals may be seen as a sort of cultural tourism initiative aiming to improve the areas in which they are held by attracting visitors, an example of which is the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale in Japan. Cultural programs and communities, like those organised in Bishan Village in Anhui province in China, also reconfigure the social ecosystems of villages and places. The case of Ping Yeung Village seems to fall in the middle of the spectrum. The murals have become attractions, generating visitor traffic while the fire dragon dance ceremony tells of the village’s plight and its progressiveness in adopting a new custom. It is only natural, perhaps, for relationships to form among villagers, visitors, and collaborators when given the chance. From a cultural management perspective, however, it might be useful to analyse these relationships in the context of programming. Can these relationships be interpreted and facilitated under the administrative framework of planning, program management, and deliverables? Using the Stakeholder Salience Model (SSM), I assess the mutual relations of proximity and needs among the three stakeholders in Ping Che’s fire dragon dance ceremony: 1. residents in the village (villagers and organisers); 2. participants (event-goers from outside the village and students); and 3. collaborators (creators and event volunteers), to arrive at a paradigm of arts programming.
SSM identifies stakeholder relationships based on three parameters: 1. the stakeholder’s power or influence in the organisation and on the project outcomes; 2. the legitimacy of the stakeholder’s claims; and 3. the urgency of their claims. Unlike two-dimensional grid models of stakeholder classification, SSM attributes an equal importance to the urgency of a claim and the power and legitimacy of a stakeholder. It also acknowledges the possibility of stakeholders transitioning from one classification to the other, which is affected by the proximity between different stakeholder types. (Note 5) In Ping Che’s fire dragon dance ceremony, the urgent needs of the villagers (core stakeholders) have nothing to do with attracting traffic or economic gain, but to invest in the village’s social and cultural capital through art programs, thus increasing the importance of the village’s existence. Not only did the fire dragon dance ceremony provide a platform for villagers to urgently express their concerns, it also further legitimised the claims of certain stakeholders and led to two favorable results:
1) It satisfied the needs of stakeholders within and outside of the village
The fire dragon making workshops and elderly home visits fulfilled the expectations visitors have for participating in cultural events and allowed villagers to extend care to the elderly living in the area. The festival also embodies the cultural tradition of the village.
2) It fostered closer relationships among stakeholders
As the fire dragon dance ceremony happens annually, it has encouraged continual and higher involvement among its collaborators, allowing them to build closer relationships with the core organisers such that their interests align over time.
As the above analysis shows, when programming rural art festivals in the context of cultural management, organisers should, as a guiding principle, align the interests and proximity of different stakeholders. The programs may last over a period of time (for instance, workshops) to increase the legitimacy, or involvement, of the participants. Alternatively, the events may also sustain continuous interaction between core organisers and stakeholders, as in the cases of residencies and regular gatherings, so that they will share a stronger affiliation and more similar needs.
In contrast to the fire dragon dance ceremony, Hi! Hill, organised by the Art Promotion Office in Chuen Lung Village, is an exemplary art program planned in a rural setting by a cultural institute. It effectively connected participating artists (collaborators) with the villagers (local residents) via a series of art events enjoyed by villagers, artists, and visitors. With over a year of programming and facilitation by MAD, the program’s curatorial partner (event collaborator), some of the featured artists took part in residencies for artistic research and participated in different village events, while some artists were residents of the village itself, such as photographer Chak Wai-leung. (Note 6) In conclusion, in order to strengthen stakeholder affiliation and satisfy their respective needs, residencies and regular gatherings should be paradigmatic programs for art festivals.
Note 1: There are two places in Hong Kong in which the Guangdong custom of the fire dragon dance ceremony is still upheld. Details: www.hkmemory.org/hkfestival/text/index.php?p=home&catId=101
Note 2: ‘Breaking Tradition: Ping Che’s Mid-Autumn Fire Dragon Dance Sees Female Successor,’ Ming Pao, September 22, 2018.
Note 3: Village communities have enlisted photographers and artists to organise events and exhibitions about life in the northeast New Territories, its development, and the co-existence of urban and rural areas. Past events include Northeast Territories Style: All That Life Can Be in 2013 and Dances with the Green: An Art Exhibition on the Northeastern New Territories in 2014. Also see ‘“Half-Day in Ping Che”: Villagers Relate Stories of Border Village amidst Fears of Eviction,’ HK01, July 5, 2019,
Note 4: KK, a villager his fifties, called for volunteers to draw murals and make art installations for village houses. Many from outside the village participated in the movement, including the international voluntary organisation VolTra.
Note 5: Mitchell, Ronald K., et al. Toward a Theory of Stakeholder Identification and Salience: Defining the Principle of Who and What Really Counts, The Academy of Management Review, vol. 22, no.4, 1997, 853–886.
Note 6: ‘Hi! Hill"Public Art Project in Tsuen Wan Traces Life in Chuen Lung Village,' HK01, April 16, 2018.