Lee Sing-man never set out to become the King of Paper-craft. In fact, he was 39 before he even picked up his first piece of paper and tried the art for himself.
It was 1983, and Lee – or “Uncle Man”, as he’s known – was visiting his family in Guangzhou for Lunar New Year. There was a scrap of leftover red paper on the table and Lee started to think of what he could do with it.
He looked around and saw a vase with the Chinese character for “Big Luck” on it. He suddenly became aware of the contrast of the characters in gold and the red ceramic of the pot. From where he stood, he could only see half of the characters, but he knew that it was a symmetrical design.
“The other half I can’t see should be the exact same as the half I’m looking at,” Lee told himself as he folded the red paper in his hands. As he moved his fingers downwards, he created his first piece, tearing out the shapes with his fingers.
His then mother-in-law was the first person to be wowed by the final product. “At the time, a calendar from Hong Kong would take the best spot on the walls but she told me to replace the calendar with my craft,” Lee told Young Post. “I couldn’t believe my ears.”
It was a successful start on his way to the folk art, but Lee didn’t do anything more with it until six years later, when he was walking on the street one day and saw a Chinese New Year sticker on a wall. It reminded him of his “Big Luck” artwork, and how much his friends and family enjoyed it, so he started practising paper tearing.
He started with symmetrical characters. “There is more than enough symmetry in life [from heart shape to characters] so it’s a good start for practise,” says Lee.
Over time, he started to take on more complicated shapes, from asymmetrical characters to all kinds of animals. He taught himself the techniques, because reading books on paper tearing was frustrating.
“I only found photographs of the paper craft and short descriptions in the books,” says Lee. “How could people learn from it?”
He decided then to start teaching the art form as a way to promote it, saying: “As a folk art, it originates from the people and it should go back to the people.”
His students range from two-year-olds to 80-year-olds, from the most ordinary Hong Kong citizens to Clifford Hart, former consul-general of the United States.
“With practise, it’s impossible not to accomplish what you want. Don’t underestimate your brain and your fingers,” Lee tells his students. “The only trick is to bring your brain, heart, and fingers together.”
Lee is constantly practising his art, whether he is on the street or in the MTR. Once, a fellow MTR passenger was so engrossed in watching Uncle Man doing his thing that he missed his stop.
For Lee, the folk art of paper-tearing is simple. “You don’t need any tools. Anyone who’s older than two and has his thumbs and index fingers working can pull this off,” he says, as he uses those four fingers to tear out “YP” from a piece of pink paper.
“You just need to take your time, with a bit of patience,” says Lee. “Saying someone is talented can be misleading. Practise is what makes perfect – there is no short-cut.”
Lee encourages his students a lot. “But I won’t hesitate to criticise them either. You have to make them correct themselves if you want them to improve,” says the artist.
Apart from classroom lessons, Lee has a “studio” at Kowloon Walled City Park where he showcases his paper-tearing art and teaches anyone who shows interest. “One time a foreign journalist asked me: ‘Where is your counter, Uncle Man?’ and I just pointed to my backpack,” Lee recalls.
Practising the folk art has boosted Lee’s confidence, and helped him get out of a deep depression after his divorce.
“I’ve had so much encouragement along the way,” he says. “I’m just happy that a simple piece of paper can bring joy to so many people.”
You can learn a thing or two from Uncle Man on Saturday afternoon at Kwun Tong’s The Wave, as part of Create Smart Initiative’s Marketplace