Lion Tales Project

Jan 14, 2022

Lion Tales is a CADCAI art project generously funded by the Flying Arts Regional Alliance to repair, restore and give new life to a set six old Chinese lions which had been used for community performances over many years.

To celebrate Chinese New year 2022, an exhibition of the newly restored and artist-treated Chinese lion masks, plus selected items from CADCAI’s Cairns Lit Sung Goong Temple collection will be installed at the Cairns Court House Gallery in Abbott Street.

The lions were acquired when a performing arts group from our sister city of Zhanjiang was invited to participate in the Cairns Festival Parade in 2005. From that visit, CADCAI acquired a set of eight Chinese lions and one dragon. The new lions enabled CADCAI to expand and develop the performance skills of its own lion team which has performed regularly at festivals and community events since that time. 

This project gives new life to six of those lions by repairing and restoring them, and engaging three local artists to interpret and illustrate the iconic Chinese New Year Festival and other important celebrations.  An indigenous artist was invited to interpret the story of Chinese migration and interaction with First Nation Australians in Cairns and the Far North.  paying respect to the land and its traditional owners.

The artists represented in this exhibition are Melanie Hava, Hayley Gillespie and  Yixi Ruan.   Lai Chu Chan (CADCAI) managed the project and also did the restoration work on all the lions.

The exhibition  opens from Saturday 21 January  – 12 February 2022.  Admission is free so please get along to see it when you get a chance.


Old lions with a new purpose 

Designed for competition, the Zhanjiang lions were compact and lightweight, and strengthened by using light sequin fabric over a thin layer of paper mâché instead of thick layers of paper over the bamboo frames of the traditional larger lions. The fabric provided strength and structure to the lion head and instead of thick sheep fur, they were accessorised with lighter, feather fur strips.

When a lion is acquired, it undergoes an eye-dotting awakening ceremony to “give it life”. During the restoration process, every effort was made to retain some of the original features including the eyes so we can see the fabric of our community and its celebrations through the eyes of the lions. Other features of the lions which were retained included the use of sequin fabric on the jaws and eyelids which were distinctive characteristics of this particular set of lions.

Since most of the lions were badly damaged, many of the bamboo strips in the frame were replaced and all the fur and trims were stripped so the structure of the lion could be strengthened and, in many cases, reinforced with cross-stitch netting to maintain its shape before layers of paper mâché could be applied. Once the head and ears were reconstructed, the lions were assigned to each of the three artists for illustration.

Upon completion of the artwork, coloured furs and lion accessories like beards and nose pom poms acquired from Zhanjiang, were used to complement the theme and colour schemes of each lion. Special trims were sewn onto coloured fur trims to bring out the special features around the nose, cheeks and horns. Red fur was used for the Chinese New Year lion to represent good luck, orange fur for the Chinese Zodiac lion to represent gold and prosperity for the lunar new year, yellow fur was chosen to represent the full moon of the mid-autumn festival, green fur represented the green leaves of the zongzi associated with the dragon boat festival while blue fur was used to represent the waters of the Great Barrier Reef and finally black fur was used to pay respect to the land and its animals, the black cockatoos, cassowary and tree kangaroo.

Each lion was custom-fitted with a collar with 5 coins representing the collaboration of Cairns & District Chinese Association Inc with the funding bodies and sister cities to complete the restoration.

by Lai Chi Chan



Photo Credit: Neil Mitchell Brierly 1945, Cairns Victory Parade, Grafton St,  Cairns 

Cairns & District Chinese Association Inc

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