All light on the night

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 September, 2005, 12:00am

COLOURFUL STARFRUIT, rabbits, goldfish and traditional paper lanterns jostle for space in storefronts, as Hong Kong prepares for Sunday's annual Mid-Autumn Festival.

While battery-lit, plastic lanterns in the shape of popular cartoon characters have dominated the scene during the past decade, this year people are opting for more traditional designs.

According to lantern supplier Tin Chau Hong, traditional varieties are particularly popular among people aged between 20 and 40. 'Plastic lanterns are just toys for children. The traditional ones are more appealing to young people and adults because of their artistic value,' says sales manager Ng Shuk-fong.

Sales have increased annually since the company started making lanterns in 1996, Ng says, and this year Tin Chau Hong expects to sell about 80,000 lanterns at its 14 outlets over the festival period.

Sports instructor Rosanna Wong Yi-po is a typical customer. At 25, she doesn't think she's too old to enjoy lanterns and every year buys a traditional one from Sai Ying Pun.

'Plastic lanterns made by machines are soulless. Traditional handmade ones are all different from each other - they're really beautiful,' says Wong.

For public relations executive Lau Siu-man, the lanterns bring back warm childhood memories. 'I used to play with paper lanterns during Mid-Autumn Festival when I was a kid. They are much prettier than plastic ones,' she says.

Most lanterns these days are made on the mainland where labour costs are lower. But instead of making the frames from bamboo strips in the traditional style, suppliers now weld pieces of wire together.

'They have lost the craftsmanship of the traditional Chinese bamboo-paper-binding lanterns and the core aesthetics of making use of the natural materials - paper and bamboo,' says Eva Yuen Man-wah, a senior lecturer in design at Polytechnic University.

She laments the loss of traditional bamboo construction skills. 'This folk craft is delicate. You need to study it and understand the underlying principles to be able to create something strong and symmetrical,' she says. 'But most people just buy cheap ones. They don't appreciate a lantern's beauty.'

But that will change if Yuen has her way. She's determined to add innovation to the traditional craftsmanship, for example, by using digital displays to highlight construction work and introduce more creative designs. She began learning about bamboo-paper construction from master lantern-maker Leung Yau-kam 20 years ago, and has researched and documented his work since.

Leung, 90, has followed the same traditional lantern-making procedure for the past 72 years. Since 1980 he has created the central display for the Urban Council's annual Mid-Autumn Lantern Carnival, only stopping four years ago. But his Sai Ying Pun shop, Sang Woo Loong, is one of the few local stores still using the bamboo-binding lantern-making technique.

Welding wire doesn't yield the same result, Leung says. 'The design and shape isn't that good.'

Leung learned his craft through a traditional apprenticeship. 'There were a lot of different masters. I learned the skills of making different paper products from observing how they worked,' he recalls, deftly showing how bamboo strips are attached before covering the frame with durable, translucent, sa paper.

For Leung, constructing the frame, attaching the colourful paper and decorating the lantern with drawing, calligraphy and ornaments is a painstaking process. With this simple yet delicate technique, Leung has created lanterns of all shapes and sizes, the tallest being 9.5 metres.

As his disciple, Yuen began introducing the craft to countries such as Australia and Canada in the mid-80s as a form of cultural exchange. Her installations, such as Dragon Dance on Trees, were displayed at the Heide Park and Art Gallery in Melbourne, while Flowering Dragon: Dance with Moon featured at Vancouver Art Gallery in Canada.

In recent years she's been promoting the folk art among local communities. 'In the past, I just took it as a bridge between western and Chinese cultures,' she says. 'Now I'm trying to preserve the craft before it dies out.'

Yuen has created an installation using traditional bamboo construction for an exhibition at the University of Hong Kong in 2001. Lotus Dialectics featured a four-metre wide lotus.

The bamboo lotus was left uncovered because 'I wanted people to appreciate the beautiful shape of the frame', but an accompanying virtual lotus display sought to provoke discussion about the value of traditional crafts in a hi-tech era. Another exhibition two years ago at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum in Sha Tin, featured women's heads made the same way.

Also in the works is an installation featuring a lotus lantern floating on the Shing Mun River and a joint exhibition with Leung. 'It's not going to happen quickly, but my concept is to reinterpret the traditional lanterns,' she says.

Now Yuen, who teaches product design, hopes to promote the craft to her students at the university. Chinese folk craft is a rich source of inspiration, she says. 'I teach my design students about the principles of Chinese aesthetics in the context of lantern-making and bamboo-paper-binding.' Greater imagination is needed to make Chinese art and aesthetics alive for the younger generation, she says.

Despite the dominance of mass-produced products, Yuen is optimistic traditional folk craft such as lantern-making can be preserved if presented and marketed more imaginatively. 'Technology is our strength,' she says. 'We can treat this as a source of inspiration, of creativity.' There is light at the end of the tunnel.