Hong Kong’s paper crafting technique

The uniqueness of Hong Kong is that, although an ultra-modern international city, it still preserves many traditional cultural festivals. Thanksgiving ceremonies to the deities, feasts and banquets all contribute to Hong Kong’s “festive vibe” – in which performances and decorations also play important roles. Across Chinese communities, lion dance performances remain very popular, while flower plaques bearing handwritten goodwill messages and event details are still common sights on the city’s streets and at village gates. In this episode of “Flavours of Hong Kong”, we talk to three paper craft masters – the internationally-acclaimed lion head maker Hui Ka Hung, and Lee Chui Lan and Nai Tsun Lam, the second- and third generation owners of “Lee Yim Kee”, a renowned handmade flower plaque workshop – each of whom has devoted their life and artistry to the city’s festivities.

Hung C Lau

From naughty boy to lion head master

In Hong Kong, no shop opening or wedding in traditional villages is complete without a lively lion dance performance. While the crashing of gongs and beating of drums match the movements of the lion head and tail to build the festive atmosphere, it’s the design of the lion head that really makes the animal come to life – successively displaying happiness, anger, sadness, joy, vigour, calm, fear, suspicion and quest for exploration.

“Hung C Lau” is one of the few remaining lion head and paper crafts workshops in Hong Kong. Founder Hui Ka Hung (Hui) is internationally acclaimed for his craftsmanship; his work has even become the treasured main exhibit of the Golden Dragon Museum in Bendigo, Australia. Hidden away in an old building in Shau Kei Wan, Hui’s 300 sq. ft. workshop is filled with the materials used for making lion heads. Hui’s wife and daughter are also experienced craftsmen, which makes this workshop a truly family enterprise.

Each lion head typically weighs 5-10 pounds, and famously features a pair of piercing eyes, along with ears and hair. The lion dance performer puts on the head and pulls a string which controls the lion’s eyes – just one of the ways in which the beast displays its many different expressions; and this is an art in itself. “The lion heads hand-made in Hong Kong are renowned for their attention to detail, unlike those that are factory-produced. Each lion head we make is unique, and I’m involved in every process from design to crafting,” says Hui proudly.

A childhood filled with dragon dance

Hui is now in his 40s; but when he first joined the lion head paper craft industry at age 8, he was considered very young. Now, he has accumulated more than 30 years’ experience.

There are 4 major steps in lion head making: binding (creating the lion’s head shape from split bamboo stems); paper-mounting (sticking layers of rice paper onto the frame); painting (painting the lion’s face, once the frame and covering have dried); and decorating (fixing ornaments onto the lion’s head).

This may all sound easy, but each step typically takes over 10 years of constant practice to master. Ever since paper crafting technique was first recognised as part of Hong Kong’s intangible cultural heritage in 2014, Hui has received many invitations from different organisations to share his craft. “We have to cut the bamboo into fine splints of the correct thickness. Without experience, you can waste an entire bamboo stick,” he says. “I visited a university once and asked the students to try splitting bamboo.” Unfortunately, many students were injured in the process: “I don’t even remember how many times I’ve injured myself while splitting bamboo!” adds Hui.

Hui grew up in Shau Kei Wan on Hong Kong Island, but his origins are in China’s Shanwei city, where locals are known as “Hoklo” due to their distinctive dialect. Raised in a martial arts family, he was exposed to lion dance as a child. “The ‘Hoklo’ people of my father’s generation liked to practice Qilin (the Chinese unicorn dance), but I preferred lion dance.” Decades ago, for the residents of Shau Kei Wan, celebrations such as the Birthdays of Tam Kung and Tin Hau were the year’s most important occasions – when the communities gathered to enjoy lion dance performances. “My two brothers and I were all fans of lion dance,” continues Hui. “On school days we normally struggled to get out of bed. But whenever we heard the sound of gongs and drums, we immediately ran into the streets and joined the crowd.” Hui says his entire childhood seemed to be filled with dragon- and lion dance.

Mouth: To make the lion look more alive, craftsmen paint teeth in its mouth.
Nose: Curled, and decorated with big woollen balls on either side.
Hair: Traditionally, the lion’s hair is made from fishing line.
Horn: To make the lion look fiercer. Lion heads crafted in different regions have different styles and shapes of horns.
Eyes: The soul of the lion. The lion dance performer pulls a string which controls the lion’s eyes, enabling it to blink.
Mirror: Like the eyes, the mirror represents the lion’s soul. Its surround is usually decorated with small woollen balls.

Hui never liked studying; he was so fond of lion dance that he often skipped school. In fact, he had an almost religious zeal for lion heads. Aged 8, he started learning how to make lion heads from his master but, as he was so young, he only half-understood what he was being taught. On his way home, Hui often visited his parents’ fruit store and asked for bamboo fruit baskets, so he could use the bamboo strands for making the lion head. At that time, he didn’t know the glue used for sticking the rice paper was made from cooked rice and flour, so he used normal glue bought from stationers. With the enthusiasm of a young do-it-yourselfer, Hui completed his first lion head at age 10; but his seniors at the martial arts school all joked that the lion looked more like a snake. Hui was undeterred: he took the hand-crafted lion head to a department store, and asked if they wanted to buy his creation! “As a kid, I believed I was very smart and my crafts were treasures,” he laughs. It’s perhaps no surprise that the staff at the department store told him to go away.

Lion head making wasn’t considered a trade in itself, so I could only get to it through paper crafting. My parents were very angry at the time, because they believed there was no future in it.

More than a tradition

As a child, Hui had a clear vision for the future: he quit school at around 10 and became an apprentice at a paper craft store in Sheung Wan. “Lion head making wasn’t considered a trade in itself, so I could only get to it through paper crafting. My parents were very angry at the time, because they believed there was no future in it.” Although the paper craft shops in Hong Kong mainly produced items used at funerals and religious rites, the techniques used were the same as those in lion head making. Through constant practice, Hui finally mastered every step. “I worked at the paper craft shop for more than 10 years, and made all kinds of products: dolls, houses, even a Mercedes-Benz; I worked without breaks.” During the day, Hui worked at the paper craft shop; in the evenings, he honed his skills by making his own lion heads. “People found the paper craft shop a scary place, but I found it interesting. The techniques I use today in making lion heads all come from those apprenticeship days.”

Slowly over time, the lion heads Hui made during his spare time began to look more professional. Cutting bamboo into thin strips, sticking the thin rice paper onto the bamboo frame, painting the lion’s face…all these skills became second nature. The accidents happened less often, and some martial arts schools even started ordering lion heads from him. In his 20s, Hui decided to leave the paper craft shop and open his own workshop, “Hung C Lau”.

The hundred-metre-long golden dragon is now the museum’s treasured main exhibit. “The museum has a tradition, every 50 years, it orders a new dragon to replace the old one.

A robot crafted by “Hung C Lau”, combining the traditional lion head with distinctive aspect and colours of Hong Kong.

The giant golden dragon commissioned by the Golden Dragon Museum in Bendigo, Australia. Its head measures 2 metres in height, and its body is covered with 7,000 scales.

To Hui, lion head making is more than just a tradition: it’s a career, an art form and even a process of self-fulfilment. “In the past, I copied how to paint the lions from others; now, I strive for breakthroughs and develop my own style so people can recognise my products instantly.” In recent years, Hui has often collaborated with artists and business partners to create innovative lion heads. For instance, he once made a robot embodying distinctive aspects of Hong Kong – combining the lion head with mailboxes, and red and green minibuses. He has also collaborated with local designers and exhibited his works in Japan, Korea and the United States. But among all his creations, he’s most proud of that giant golden dragon commissioned by the Golden Dragon Museum in Bendigo, Australia. Bendigo was once a gold mining town, and still hosts a large Chinese expat community – for whom the annual golden dragon parade is the highlight every Easter. The dragon’s head is 2 metres high, and its body is covered by over 7,000 scales. “Each scale was sewn by hand, and it took a day to make each one. We hired 20 people to work on this task for over half a year. When it was finally completed, we were all very happy.”

The hundred-metre-long golden dragon is now the museum’s treasured main exhibit. “The museum has a tradition,” continues Hui. “Every 50 years, it orders a new dragon to replace the old one. I’m only in my 40s this year: when the Golden Dragon Museum places its next order, I’ll be in my 90s. I really hope the next golden dragon will still be made by me!” On his journey from naughty boy to great master, the lion head never stopped being part of Hui’s dream.

Lee Yim Kee

Taking design to new heights

If dragon and lion dance is the dynamic element of festivals, then the flower plaque is the landmark for celebration venues. At festivals or store openings in Hong Kong’s old districts or traditional villages, we still see giant, brightly coloured flower plaques, featuring dragon and phoenix patterns, erected on the street or at the entrance to villages. The names of the organisers and other essential information are written in flourishing and bold Chinese calligraphy. The festive atmosphere evoked by these flower plaques draws in visitors from far and wide.

“Lee Yim Kee Flower Shop” is located in the old district of Yuen Long in the New Territories, and covers an area of ​​thousands of square feet – exceptionally spacious by Hong Kong standards. However, when you consider how big their flower plaques are – frequently 10 feet by 20 feet, but often as much as 100 feet wide – you can see that so much space is entirely necessary. This business does not rely only on the makers’ sophisticated craftsmanship and typographic skills – but also on the extraordinary climbing skills needed to erect the plaques!

Top:Placed at the top, this part features a three-dimensional fanning peacock or phoenix with opened wings – symbols of great prosperity.
Brow:The basic component of flower plaque decorated with foil flowers and light bulbs, it displays the theme, congratulatory message or names of patrons.
Square Box:For showing the theme or congratulatory messages written in large sized text. Its background is usually red or green in colour. In the 1960s, cotton was stuck onto the Square Box to make it looks more three dimensional.
Undergarment:Trapezium in shape, it is mainly for decorating the bottom part of flower plaque; the word “congratulations” is usually written here.
Red Cloth:The periphery of flower plaque is wrapped in red to create a festive vibe.

Handed down through the generations

“Lee Yim Kee” has been rooted in Hong Kong for more than 60 years, having been founded by Lee Yim in the 1950s. When he passed away, the business was handed on to his children – Li Chi Hoi, and his little sister Lee Chui Lan (“Sister Lan”). Today, the business has passed on again – to its third-generation owner, Nai Tsun Lam (Andy). Although Li Chi Hoi and Sister Lan have both reached retirement age, they still help out in the workshop from time to time.

The flower plaques of Hong Kong are generally huge, and rectangular in shape. The most noticeable element is the “Square Box”in the middle, where the theme of the festival or feast and congratulatory words are written. The left and right sides are the “Dragon Pillars”; while the top is the extremely delicate “Peacock Top”, comprising a three-dimensional paper peacock’s head and fanned peacock tail. Every detail of the plaque is intriguing: “The essence of flower plaques is the bright and eye-catching colours like red and green which are designed to cheer people up. Gloomy colours are out of the question.” So says Sister Lan, and Andy sitting next to her agrees.

Her Chinese calligraphy is acknowledged as remarkable, and virtually without equal among her peers in the industry.

The envy of her peers

Sister Lan, armed with her artistic talent, has been in charge of writing messages on flower plaques for decades. Her Chinese calligraphy is acknowledged as remarkable, and virtually without equal among her peers in the industry. Every time Sister Lan receives an order, she immediately sketches the design on paper with a ballpoint pen; in the workshop, we see some of these sketches clipped onto thin ropes. Then, with their nimble hands, the craftsmen of “Lee Yim Kee” turn these sketches into actual flower plaques. Sister Lan can instantly draw the shape of the “round bag” (a round-shaped element of the flower plaque, containing a Chinese character) using only a pen and a coin. Andy, whose own job is setting up the bamboo scaffolds that support the flower plaque, admits: “When it comes to design and writing, I really can’t match her. I would have to practice for a very long time!”

Sister Lan’s outstanding calligraphy is the main reason her customers keep on coming back to “Lee Yim Kee”. When she was a child, she observed and imitated her father’s Chinese calligraphy, and practiced on newspapers in the workshop. Her talent in calligraphy gained her father’s approval, and she was commissioned to write Chinese messages in Chinese characters (such as “Birthday of Tin Hau”, “Safe and Sound” and “God Bless”) on flower plaques. Eventually, she was also given responsibility for painting dragons, phoenixes and various other colourful, propitious patterns on the plaques. Writing and drawing on giant flower plaques with an average height of 20-feet is completely different from writing on paper. However, with nearly 50 years of experience, Sister Lan is able to draw giant patterns or Chinese characters directly onto the plaques, using a brush, without a moment’s hesitation. The final product is totally symmetrical and proportionate: even other craftsmen within the industry gasp with admiration at her superb artwork.

The bottom part of the flower plaque usually contains the names of patrons and customers. In traditional villages, the number of patrons often exceeds a hundred for important inaugurations or festivals – like the annual Tai Ping Qing Jiao. Precision is critically important: “Mr. Wong and Mr. Wang are pronounced identically in spoken Cantonese, but they are not written the same. There were no WhatsApp or emails in the old days, so I had to confirm the names with customers by phone every time. It would take me a whole day just to confirm the correct names of the patrons,” Sister Lan recalls with a smile. “If you keep writing on flower plaques, your Chinese language skills will definitely improve.”

At first, I thought it was just scaffolding work, and would be similar to my previous job. But when I took over the business, I found they were completely different. I had to start from scratch.

Sustaining a 60-year-old brand

No matter how exquisite the flower plaque, it is pointless if it cannot be properly displayed. So fixing the flower plaque to its bamboo scaffold is another fundamental of this business. Nowadays, this part of the job has been passed to Andy.

Andy was a scaffold worker before taking over “Lee Yim Kee” in 2014, so climbing and working at height were things he knew well. But he had never before been involved in the production of flower plaques. “I lived in a traditional village since I was a kid,” he says. “It was common to see flower plaques around.” Andy's former construction scaffolding master was a friend of Sister Lan, when he learned Sister Lan and her brother’s health was deteriorating, he worried that “Lee Yim Kee” would have no successor – and so he asked Andy to give it a shot. Andy had known about “Lee Yim Kee” since childhood, so he immediately agreed in the hope of sustaining this long-standing brand. “At first, I thought it was just scaffolding work, and would be similar to my previous job. But when I took over the business, I found they were completely different. I had to start from scratch.”

Both jobs involve bamboo scaffolding: but the scaffolds that support flower plaques are very different to those used in construction. “The scaffolds for construction provide plenty of space to move around. It’s easy to stand on the bamboo stems and hold the branches to maintain balance. But it is totally different when I put the flower plaques onto their scaffolds. The scaffold is completely covered by the plaque, so I cannot straddle the bamboo branches; it is a test of upper body strength, and you need to be well trained,” Andy explains. It was Li Chi Hoi, brother of Sister Lan, who taught him how to do it. “I regard both of them as my masters; they both taught me many flower plaque making skills.”

I think making flower plaques is a valuable craft that should be promoted to the general public.

Although Andy was a hard working apprentice, he realised his writing skills could not match those of Sister Lan in the short term. So he adopted work-arounds such as digitising Sister Lan’s handwriting as a reference for making plaques. But he did not know the format and etiquette of flower plaque writing, so became Sister Lan’s humble student. “At school, my language level was not outstanding, not to mention the Chinese usage in flower plaque writing. For example, titles such as ‘Mr.’ or ‘Ms.’ should not prefix the names of customers, as people generally do not address themselves by their title. I had to learn all these details on the job.”

Andy has also tried to promote the flower plaques culture since taking over the business. He collaborated with a shopping mall to make a giant flower plaque as a special installation for the Lunar New Year, which proved very eye-catching. “I think making flower plaques is a valuable craft that should be promoted to the general public.” Andy says.

After 6 years of working together, the two generations of “Lee Yim Kee” are like a single family. Sister Lan recalls when she first met Andy in the workshop: “It is very hard work in the flower plaque industry. I was concerned he might give up too quickly,” Sister Lan says with a smile. But “I wasn’t worried,” responds Andy. “I just thought they were two kind-hearted seniors!” Today, when Sister Lan sees this younger man working so humbly and diligently for “Lee Yim Kee”, all her doubts are dispelled.

Lee Chui Lan (left) and Nai Tsun Lam (right), the second- and third generation owners of “Lee Yim Kee”.