Beacon of tradition
Asia Times talks to one of Hong Kong's traditional lantern makers Chan Yiu-wah who shows us how he makes his colorful designs from scratch
The Spring Lantern festival falls on the 15th day of every Lunar New Year. In ancient China on this day, people mark the end of the new year celebration by appreciating the multitude of brilliant decorations in the evening.
This day is also considered Chinese Valentine’s Day as this was the only time women, in ancient times, could step out of their homes without a male escort, and perhaps look for love. Chinese poets wrote about discovering romance on this day and some have become classics that Chinese students still must study today.
While Chinese women generally enjoy more rights now than they did back then (with plenty of room for improvement), lanterns still take center stage, even in modern cities like Beijing and Taipei.
In Hong Kong, ancient paper-crafting techniques, including lantern making, are listed on the First Intangible Cultural Heritage Inventory of the city. “The craftsmanship of lantern making is an intangible cultural heritage of Hong Kong, which is artistically and historically significant,” the government said.
Asia Times talked to Chan Yiu-wah, one of the experts in the Asian financial hub that still makes lanterns locally, and asked him to demonstrate the basic steps in making one.
Chan, now 65, was born in mainland China. He studied art in Dongguan, a major manufacturing base in the southern province of Guangdong that is close to Hong Kong, during his early years before becoming a master paper craftsman.
In a traditional craft like this, human connection is very important when it comes to acquiring the specialized skills. That was the same for Chan. He learnt all his skills from the father of a friend, who was already in his 60s and the only master in paper craft in town.
“He [my master] didn’t take any students,” Chan said in Cantonese. “I was the only one.”
Chan’s master had an intuition that he had potential because of his natural ability to work with his fingers.
The 65-year-old said that at the time he was stressed about learning all the techniques in the beginning as his master decided to retire in three months. “I had to keep practising the most difficult technique,” he said. “This is the short cut I had.”
He also learnt from following an example lantern, which meant hours and hours of pure hard work.
Chan moved to Hong Kong in 1980 because the former British colony had a much better economy back then. He started his own shop in Sai Ying Pun, an old district on western Hong Kong Island.
Lanterns were only one of the many items his shop produced. Chan was also good at making heads and decorations for lion and dragon dances as well as flower canons for traditional folk festivals.
It was a really good period for Chan. Since China was just opening up to the world, Chan faced less competition. Some of his work, including lanterns and the lion heads, was exported to the United States and Canada. He was able to raise three kids with his two hands.
But life is more difficult now. Chan faces competition from mainland China, where labor costs are much cheaper. A giant head for a dragon dance, for example, would take six weeks to produce and sold for around HK$18,000 (US$2,320) 20 years ago; it is the same price now.
However, Chan is still proud of his work. He recalled that some of his lanterns were taken back to mainland China, in an attempt to copy his skills.“No one can copy it,” Chan said with a big smile on his face.
Chan can also distinguish between good and bad work, even though they may look similar to the untrained eye. But it is likely his traditional skills will disappear because he doesn’t have a full-time student now. He says it is because young people are no longer interested in traditional crafts.
His work is on display at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Piazza until February 14. The three large handcrafted lanterns, each with a design based on the ones that once were hung in the palace in the Forbidden City in Beijing and they rotate like a merry-go-round.