Paul Chan Makes Puppets Taller Than a Double-Decker Bus
His come-to-Jesus moment was finding out that Elmo was a black man.
Paul Chan’s not just any puppet maker: He creates giant, five-meter-tall inflatable puppets which are worn like massive backpacks. And just for your reference: A double-decker bus in Hong Kong is 4.3 meters.
HK Magazine: How did you first get into puppets?
Paul Chan: When I was at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, there was a course with members of the Jim Henson Company, the creators of “Sesame Street.” They came to teach us about western-style puppets. I loved it, and have been freelancing as a puppet maker since my HKAPA graduation 15 years ago.
HK: Who’s your favorite “Sesame Street” character?
PC: Elmo! One of the guys who came to talk to us at the HKAPA played Elmo—I couldn’t have imagined that such an adorable, cute character could be a tall, muscular black man. The disparity was huge! He was so manly but he could transform his voice into Elmo’s.
HK: How do you make your giant inflatable puppets?
PC: I make 3D models on AutoCAD, and sometimes I make miniature models and photograph them, then put them into the computer. Then I cut the models apart into flat shapes that I can cut out of paper. I print them out on 50 to 60 sheets of A3 paper and put it together piece by piece. I test these paper models, to make sure the shapes work—when you inflate something it always tries to become a sphere, so you need to find ways to keep the desired shape. Then I cut it out from fabric and sew it together. They’re too big to inflate in the studio, so I test the puppets outside in the street on Sunday nights, when people aren’t around. It’s also something fun for the security guards.
HK: Your puppets are huge! How do you move them?
PC: Most of my puppets are about five meters tall and worn on a person’s back. A lot of the parts have strings inside to control the limbs. The size and the height make them difficult to hold steady in the wind, so you have to be pretty strong and good with your balance. They can be heavy too—even though my puppets are filled with air, they’re big enough to still carry a fair amount of weight.
HK: What’s the biggest puppet you’ve ever made?
PC: In 2003, I made a 10-meter-tall rabbit. The rabbit was created in the style of a Chinese marionette, hung in a mall from the ceiling. It took 20 people to operate, and took two months to make. I got the Guinness World Record for that one, but a few years later someone else took the record again. Now, the record is like around 30 meters and it needs a helicopter to hold it up, so that’s pretty hard to pass.
HK: Which puppet is your favorite?
PC: The Magician. It was my first human-mounted giant puppet. It’s 4.8 meters tall: He could turn his head and open his mouth, move his fingers. He could do a lot of tricks, like spinning his wand, throwing flames out of his hand, releasing balloons from his hat. I’ve kept it for ages, even though I haven’t used it lately. I’ve kept all these huge puppets, but they’re so big that I’m left with a tiny space in my studio to work now, so I now make them inflatable instead—I can fit them into much smaller boxes this way.
HK: Do your puppets ever scare kids?
PC: Yeah, sometimes when the little kids see a big puppet they get scared, but when I see their expressions I move back and show I’m not a threat. Sometimes just making things big can make them scary: Even Doraemon, who is super cute, can become a monster if you make him two meters tall. Most kids love them though.
HK: Do you believe in fate, and the possibility that you yourself might be a puppet of a higher cosmic power?
PC: I recently converted to Christianity: I’m Protestant. Before, I felt that there were things I couldn’t control, and I could only follow the flow. Now I feel that all the things I’ve done, like learning to use AutoCAD in school and to create clothing, all led me to my passion, to make puppets. I feel that it’s something that God wanted me to do, and he prepared me for it.
Check out Paul’s puppets at Standard Chartered Arts in the Park on Nov 14-15, hkyaf.com/AIP2015.