AP PHOTOS: Lion dance tradition thrives in Malaysia

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The traditional art of the Chinese lion dance is nowhere near perishing in Muslim-majority Malaysia.

As Lunar New Year approaches, lion dance troupes here are practicing their coordinated movements in the noisy routine that is believed to ward off evil spirits and garner good luck.

It's a centuries-old tradition dating back the Han Dynasty, when lion dancers were mostly from martial arts schools who used their acrobatic kicks and jumps to ring in the new year.

These days, it is kept alive by an ethnic Chinese minority that makes up 22 percent of Malaysia's 30 million people — and by people like master craftsman Siow Ho Phiew (pronounced "See-ow hoe pew").

The 61-year-old Siow has been making the colorful, intricately designed lion's heads — an essential component of the dance — for more than three decades.

He started his endeavor because it was expensive and difficult to import the lion heads from China. After he produced some, his friends started asking him to craft the heads for their lion dance troupes, too.

Siow taught himself the three-step process: making a wooden frame, covering it with papier-mache and painting it to give the lion a personality, depending on the request of the customer.

He also makes the lion's tail, another key component, and the colorful leggings worn by troupe members who form the animal's body that writhes during the dance.

It became his full-time job and today Siow exports the beautifully crafted lion costumes all over the world and trains a group of artisans in the art form.

Siow isn't worried that the tradition will die out.

"This lion dance is a culture. It's not something new, it dates back for thousands of years," he said. "I believe that if it is good and beautiful art, I'm sure there will be people who will continue it."