Hong Kong's master craftsmen keep traditions alive in lead-up to Chinese New Year

Hong Kong's master craftsmen keep traditions alive in lead-up to Chinese New Year

Hong Kong's glory days of paper craft - the making of lanterns and paper decorations - may be long gone, but master craftsmen are still keeping some of these traditions alive.

HONG KONG: Hong Kong's glory days of paper crafts - the making of lanterns and paper decorations - may be long gone, but master craftsmen are still keeping some of these traditions alive.

At his workshop in a village in Yuen Long out in Hong Kong's New Territories, paper craft master Kenneth Mo Cheuk-Kei is busy in the lead-up to Chinese New Year.

There's demand for unicorn and lion heads used by dance troupes to usher in luck and prosperity, as well as for flower altars and lanterns, in keeping with village folk traditions during the New Year.

The 45-year-old started out when he was 19, and says he is still busy all year round.

"At age 25, I quit my full-time job to start this business in 1997," he told Channel NewsAsia. "I never thought [about whether] it could support a living, whether there [could] be enough business - my interest in the craft came first. Interest is what has driven me all these years."

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Unicorn and lion heads are used by dance troupes to usher in luck and prosperity. (Photo: Roland Lim)

Twenty-five years on, he's proud to have established a reputable business that relies on customers who have become friends, as well as referrals that keep him busy.

In the second and third month of the lunar calendar, Hongkongers celebrate the birthdays of the Goddess of Mercy and the Goddess of the Sea.

In this Taoist ritual, devotees gather at temples and display paper models of altars called 'fa pau' or floral wreaths, in March and April for Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy.

That's followed by weeks of celebration in the lead-up to the birthday of Tin Hau, the Goddess of the Sea; temple ceremonies and street parades - the biggest of which happen in Yuen Long - mean more paper offerings.

"Our business is mainly on making 'fa paus', so it's difficult to have spare capacity to make paper unicorn heads in the later part of the year," said Mo.

The Chinese unicorn, or 'Qilin', is one of the four auspicious animals in Chinese mythology and is especially important to Hakka culture, where unicorn dances are often performed to celebrate not just the Chinese New Year but weddings and birthdays, to ward off evil and usher in good luck.

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Completed Qilin heads by Kenneth Mo. (Photo: Facebook / @MoCheukKeiKenneth)

He takes pride in using time-honoured techniques taught to him as a student, such as making the frame of the unicorn or lion's head out of bamboo slats instead of rattan, for strength and flexibility.

"Shredding bamboo is time consuming. It takes a day to shred 50 to 80 pieces of bamboo slats for making one paper lion head. We also use paper to bind the slats which also takes time. Some craftsmen in Singapore or Malaysia use masking tape to bind them up, which saves time."

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Each head takes between ten and 12 days to complete. (Photo: Facebook / @MoCheukKeiKenneth)

It takes him between ten and 12 days to complete a lion's head, which then goes for about HK$7,000 (US$900).

His main competitors across the border on the mainland, where rents are cheap and labour costs are lower, do it at half the price.

That's why Mo has set up an association to promote the craft, the Hong Kong Qilin Sports Federation, visiting universities and doing workshops to educate the masses on the creative process and why each piece is one-of-a-kind.

"If we promote the craft and give them the experience of taking part, in making them, they'll find that taking ten days to complete one head is where the value for money has gone," he said.

This, he hopes, will in turn encourage more people to take an interest in traditional paper crafts.

Source: CNA/nc

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