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Tai Hang’s leading female drummer defies gender traditions

First featured on Urban Diary in 2013.

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 drummer 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 Chu

Natural Chu. Photo: Tai Ngai-lung.

Natural works in the movie business. She used to be a stuntwoman and is now involved in film productions. She took part in Transformers 4 and Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut, Tai Chi Man. Apart from Hollywood films, she is also involved in local productions. Working with film stars on a daily basis, Natural doesn’t have particular feeling towards the celebrities, or want to be a celebrity herself. “Becoming famous doesn’t mean living well,” she said.

Away from the big screen, Natural has been one of the ten leaders of the large music team that provides the thunderous drum beats for the Tai Hang Fire Dragon dance in recent years. Leader Fai Gor promoted her to head the musical team last year.  She is the first woman to rise to a music team leadership position in the 135-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 officially can dance the dragon.

I’m convinced it is our personality that defines us, which then defines how we live. This explains why Natural is in the film industry and the female drummer of a  century-old male-dominated tradition. She is rebellious and carefree. She dislikes being called by her Chinese name because she feels the name is not chic enough. She loves action and is so short of patience that even sitting quietly long enough for a proper dinner is a daunting task. So she must go  swimming, play Thai boxing and walk her dog every day.  That love of activity helped earn her the drummer’s job.

woman dragon dance

Natural Chu. Photo: Tai Ngai-lung.

“Fai Gor promoted me to the role, honouring the promise he made when I was kid,” she said. “When I first joined the dance squad many years ago, I kept jumping and running around. Fai Gor came to me and said if I worked hard, he would promote me.”

The first promotion came in 2007, after she had already spent more than 10 years with the squad.

But Natural is not just the leading female drummer: she thinks she may be also the first woman to have danced the Fire Dragon, after surreptitiously joining in on obscure parts of the route. She shared this secret as I asked her to share her experiences of the century-old ritual, a much-loved tradition that still maintains its discriminatory practices.

woman dragon dance

Natural Chu. Photo: Tai Ngai-lung.

“Fai Gor knows, and quite a number of people know it too. I respect the rule; 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 [dance] it in the alleys when most people wouldn’t notice. I didn’t want Fai Gor to shout my name into the microphone and order me to leave the dragon. As long as I don’t do this in front of him, he’ll continue to pretend he’s not aware of it,” Natural said.

“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 that  when I am very confident of my ability. I don’t want to cause trouble [to the dragon].”

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, they wouldn’t suggest a team that I’m not supposed to join.”

Today, the female drummer lives in Prince Edward but 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 in, 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. “For Tai Hang boys, I think it is in the  blood.”

She also values the intimate inter-personal relationships that that she finds in Tai Hang.

Once, she recalled, she was suffering from a bad dose of flu during one of the many Fire Dragon dances she has 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 poor state. She said there was never a moment of loneliness in Tai Hang. “Even when I have to eat my dinner alone, I won’t  be lonely because someone in the cha chaan teng will  come to chat with me,” she said.

Although Natural no longer lives in Tai Hang, she still identifies with the community where she was born. “I am from Tai Hang, or a Tai Hang boy,” she says, explaining that she uses the male term rather than Tai Hang girl because she has just got used to it.  “This is how I have introduced myself for a long time. I think we tend to identify with the place and culture that we grew up with, not the place where we are currently living. This 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.

The drummer still hopes she will one day be a team leader of the dragon head section. She is confident that she can lift up the creature’s head. And when she is old and no longer able to play drums, she wants to lead the lantern team.

tai hang

Tai Hang. Photo: Tai Ngai-lung.

Q: What do you like 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 most about Hong Kong?

A: Too many mainland tourists. 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. Many of them also come here to buy groceries to resell across the border. That’s why Hong Kong is running out of Yakult and baby milk powder.

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. 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. 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 for us to have the right to issue travel visas to mainland visitors.

The above is one of the stories featured in Urban Diary, a project showcasing the quiet yet extraordinary lives of 18 regular men and women in Hong Kong. Read more about the project and Chloe’s new book on urbandiarist.com/en/.

Tai Hang's leading female drummer defies gender traditions