I was in the middle of Tai Hang when the fire dragon took hold.
For three nights during the Mid-Autumn Festival, this normally quiet neighborhood in Hong Kong erupts into a frenzy. Crowds of spectators pack this tiny street to watch 300 men parade around a straw dragon adorned with 24,000 slow-burning incense sticks, while performers bang on drums and gongs.
It is organized chaos, thick with smoke and suspense. The dragon sucks you in, a whole greater than the sum of its parts, a legitimate time traveler.
In the 19th century, Tai Hang was a small village of Hakka farmers and fishers. The villagers were Han Chinese from the north who settled in Hong Kong long ago.
The fire dragon tradition emerged from local lore. In the autumn of 1880, a typhoon struck Tai Hang, followed by a plague. Perhaps lured by the smell of death, a hungry python entered the village to feast on livestock.
Grief-stricken villagers grasped for understanding. It had be a curse, a soothsayer told them. The snake must have been the spawn of the Dragon King.
To chase it off, villagers picked stalks of grass, bound them together into a dragon, and spiked it with incense. For three days and nights, they beat on drums, banged on gongs, and danced their pain away.
The tradition weathered the political turbulence and urbanization of the 20th century. Some say that the dragon, with its own annual demand to be higher, faster, and stronger, is responsible for Tai Hang’s soccer prowess. At the 1936 Berlin Olympics, except for two players, China’s team comprised all Tai Hang locals.
In the present day, the dragon continues to re-emerge each year in more or less the same form. On Ormsby Street, its handler prepares to lift the 100-pound head, his eyes bloodshot as the ash from incense sticks tightens onlookers’ chests.
When the chief supervisor indicates everything is good to go, the dragon’s 220-foot body is packed and loaded with thousands of slow-burning incense sticks. It will be reloaded at least two more times throughout the night.
The dragon’s head burns a fresh red as it winds its way up Ormsby Street. Old ash breaks from the tips of the smoldering incense as it chases two spinning orbs that it will never catch. From the outside, you see a fearsome and frightening creature, restless and rampaging. Then underneath, you see the men, heavy with the drain of keeping it alive.
At their limits, they grapple with something much bigger than themselves: a 139-year-old tradition.