Master craftsmen keep traditions alive
As long as Paul Chan See-lik and Au-yeung Ping-chi have something to say about it, creating puppets and paper effigies will live on in Hong Kong. They're showcasing their craft at community events such as the Arts in the Park Mardi Gras.
Last month Chan, the puppet maker, and Au-yeung, the paper model master, joined students and performers in the annual two-day carnival of song, dance and arts in Victoria Park, organised by the Youth Arts Foundation.
The experience was a first for Au-yeung, who usually works in Sham Shui Po where his family sells traditional paper lanterns and funeral offerings.
Au-yeung and his father make many of the more elaborate offerings themselves - paper replicas of items from daily life, from smartphones to cars and even a giant racecourse complete with paper thoroughbreds, which are burned to ensure that the deceased are kept in comfort in the afterlife.
Of course, they also make lanterns for celebrations and are busy constructing lotus lanterns, which will be used for Lunar New Year lighting at Sam Tung Uk Village, a Hakka walled village in Tsuen Wan that has been restored as a folk museum.
At the Mardi Gras parade (held in the dark in Victoria Park this year instead of the streets of Causeway Bay because of the Occupy protests), Au-yeung presented his take on the merlion, a mythical creature with the head of a lion and the body of a fish.
Throughout the year, Au-Yeung, 35, also works with students in local schools, teaching them the basic techniques so that they can make their own paper effigies and lanterns.
"Students are very creative," he says. "Although they are not doing the craft in a very traditional way, I can feel their happiness when they see their artworks completed."
Until recently, Au-Yeung never gave much thought to the survival of his art, even though he knows he's among only a handful of Hong Kong artisans who continue the tradition of making paper effigies.
He took up the work by default. He applied for jobs in advertising firms after completing a diploma in graphic design, and helped out in his father's shop while waiting for responses. Between packing and making deliveries, he toyed with making paper offerings. A paper skateboard that he created caught customers' attention, and before long he was being asked to make more quirky offerings from high-heeled shoes to toothbrushes and dim sum. There has even been a commission for a paper crazy golf course (with clubs).
Not having done the usual apprenticeship, he turns to his father for help whenever he has a problem. Initially, construction was a constant challenge. "It seemed hard at first. But through trial and error, I was either able to do it, or it didn't work at all," he says.
By contrast, Chan, 39, picked up his puppet-making skills at the Academy for Performing Arts (APA).
Transformers action figures were some of his favourite toys as a child, and he enjoyed playing with toy robots, taking them apart and putting them back together. His fondness for drawing fantasy figures and model making came together in school projects, including an elaborate papier mâché dragon that he created for an interschool event. Designed as a mobile structure that could be worn with a shoulder harness, the beast even spurted water from its nostrils through hoses attached to the pack.
Such proclivities made Chan a natural for props design when he began studying applied arts at the APA in 1996. There were three sections - costumes, scenery and props - and Chan thought he would be learning about each.
"But when they saw my portfolio from high school, particularly the dragon, they just took me to the props instructor and said: 'Here's your student'. At the time I didn't know the difference between the three streams, but now I see it was good for me," he says.
Being the only student in the props section gave him a lot of hands-on experience and knowledge. He picked up welding, moulding, woodwork and sewing - and even learned to make a corset.
"I like to work with my hands and learned how to see things in three dimensions," he says.
A two-week visit to the APA by creature makers from the Jim Henson Company proved to be a turning point. Not only did it give Chan greater insight into the world of puppetry, but the exposure also spurred him to develop giant puppets.
"Muppets are actually moving mouth puppets," Chan says. "I didn't know how much was involved in manipulating them. They [the Jim Henson artists] are very good at making the Muppets lively, so it gave me a greater appreciation."
This year is Chan's seventh taking part in the Arts in the Park Mardi Gras, and he enjoys the challenge of coming up with a creature that fits the theme.
For this year's theme of "Defying Gravity: Science and the Arts", he created a colourful inflated piece called Little Plant From Outer Space that looks like a multicoloured aloe vera plant.
Chan puts considerable thought into how his creations can be more interactive. So his space plant, hoisted on a shoulder harness, incorporates levers that he can pull to move some "arms" to deliver a livelier alien. The inflatable device, with LED illumination, took about a month to make.
For last year's event, he designed a monster with clamps for hands and giant jaws and an eye that could move.
"I loved seeing the reaction of the children when I opened the jaws wide and come up close to them. Those who are two or three years old may scream because they are scared, so I take a step back to show them the monster is not going to eat them," he says.
Chan especially enjoys making big puppets for outdoors community events like parades. "You have to make them over 1.5 metres tall because people are standing and need to see the puppets above people's heads and from far away," he says.
He works out of a Yau Tong industrial building in a studio filled with props and large, colourful puppets such as a magician in a top hat, a giant horse and last year's monster.
"I like inflatable puppets because they are easier for storage; as you can see, this place is filled with stuff," Chan says amid the packed space. "I also don't want to throw away what I've made, and it also allows me to make them bigger."
He is grateful that his parents didn't pressure him to take a more conventional career path, with a steady income. "They knew I would work with my hands, and without much pressure I could focus on creating things," he says.
His mother, a former seamstress, even helps him to sew the inflatable puppets.
These days, he keeps busy working on word-of-mouth commissions, and giving lessons on making puppets and props at secondary schools.
"Students can be bored quickly, but if you give them interesting tasks, they will do them well," Chan says.
"They don't normally work in 3D and make things that are so large. Before we start a project, they have no idea what the big picture will be, but towards the end, when they start putting it together and begin to realise how it's going to turn out, they get really excited."
In between the school workshops, Chan is developing ideas for his next big project - the Lunar New Year parade at Ocean Park. But he isn't giving any clues about what it will be.