I was so excited to see the film ‘The Sight of Borneo Kirin’, by Pentium Tee! It was Day 2 of the Kota Kinabalu International Film Festival (KKIFF) and Yap had a ticket for me. He warned me, “I’m in this film, okay?” No kidding!
This film is a documentary about the Hakka Chinese Unicorn Dance (as opposed to the more widely known Lion dance), and was shot in Sandakan, and Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. It follows the people who look after this cultural dance, which UNESCO has listed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage in China.
There was so much excitement about this film! Jude Day, Festival Director was clearly so thrilled to be premiering this film, and so proud of our Hakka Chinese in Sabah. She was just beaming.
Yap says in mythology, the Kirin (also spelt Qilin) brings good fortune. The Kirin is a herbivore. It is kind and treads carefully, so as not to hurt small living things underfoot — not even the tiniest plants and flowers — and its dance would reflect this. It has fanged teeth but they are angled in such a way not to be aggressive. The characteristics of a Kirin can have many variations, as outlined here.
For the Hakka Chinese, education is paramount, and the Kirin dance used to be a major fundraiser for schools which the Hakkas had established. The dance was also a mainstay of the community; older people in the film have childhood recollections of being thrilled and even scared by the sound of clashing cymbals that precede the approaching Kirin. Adults would have their ang pows ready — a red paper packet with money inside — to give their donations.
The curator of a Hakka museum in Sandakan spoke about the need to pass down tradition, and there is lots of beautiful, slow-motion footage of training — the martial art of the Kirin dance.
Then we saw the spiritual preparation of the Kirin. It is taken into the forest at night, with its eyes and mouth covered by red-coloured cloth — sometimes they use red paper. There are rituals to conduct and a lot of smoke, before peeling back the covers to reveal the orbs of the Kirin’s eyes, incandescent in the moonlight. The Kirin, now imbued with spiritual purpose, is ready to dance.
Allen Lin, who was in the film, brought senior masters of the Kirin dance in KK to see the film. So there were many sifus sitting in the audience!
Yap said, “This film pays homage to these masters for maintaining these traditions during the yesteryears. Even though it is a tradition that is getting less and less attention, their contribution to the society — especially fundraising for schools — should not be forgotten. The film director hopes to reignite their love for this tradition, so that more people can enjoy it today.
The film also shows that, at the end of the Chinese New Year the performers get together for a meal and will get their ‘payment’. In the early days that could be just RM5 (Malaysian Ringgit) or RM10. But after the dinner, the troupe leader will open his ang pow and put the money inside onto a plate, and pass the plate around to the other members. All the members follow, and the money on the plate is donated to the fundraising cause. They literally receive nothing monetary. It is the love, the joy and the fun of Kirin dancing that keeps them doing it over the years.Yap Keng Vui
In the Q&A session afterwards, there were passionate calls for a Part Two to this documentary! A lot of the footage was taken in Sandakan (East coast) and the audience called out for an West coast (Kota Kinabalu) chapter next!
Pentium and his team want to learn all they can from the elders, to preserve the tradition of the Hakka Kirin. It’s not easy making a film, and in a world where memories are short and trends fleeting, dedication like this is gold.