A Chinese lantern maker’s journey from dragons to Disney

Using chalk attached at the end of a long stick, Quek Wan Ling quickly draws the shape of a fish on the concrete floor of the parking lot. Later a young worker crouches over the outline and starts molding a long, thin piece of wire, faithfully following the outline.

After repeating the exercise, the two identical, flat fish shapes – each about 60 centimeters, or two feet, long – will be welded together to produce a simple lantern. Light bulbs will be threaded inside the skeleton before thick silk is stretched over and glued to the iron frame.

Because the lantern is so simple, the whole process takes no more than half an hour. But for the more complicated 3-D lanterns, especially a larger-than-life human figure or a giant dinosaur, it can be a time-consuming affair taking several workers a couple of days, the master lantern designer said.

Twenty years ago, Quek, 57, spent most of his time dreaming up fearsome dragons, soaring phoenixes and Tang Dynasty emperors, but nowadays he is as likely to be working on a popular cartoon character such as Hello Kitty or one from Disney or Pixar.

Progress in technology and changing tastes mean today's Chinese lanterns bare little resemblance to the bamboo and colored paper lanterns first fashioned during the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD).

The flexibility of wire and the use of electronic chips for creating animatronic moving parts have allowed artists to stretch their imaginations and come up with elaborated 3-D lanterns representing anything from the legend of the Monkey King to a dancing Mickey Mouse.

"It's not just the materials. The themes people request are also very different," Quek said through an interpreter. "Nowadays, people don't want the traditional Chinese-themed lanterns with dragons and phoenixes or the zodiac animals; they want cartoon characters and wild safaris."

The changes toward more Western-themed lantern festivals started to happen in China in the 1980s, as the country opened up, Quek said. Ironically, he's still kept busy working on the Chinese-themed festivals now in demand in the West. "Working on more historical festivals requires a lot of research work because we try to be as faithful as possible to the time. For example, the Tang Dynasty preferred their ladies a bit plump so we try to reflect that in the lantern," he explained, adding that he actually prefers working on cartoon characters than traditional Chinese ones.

As an artist, Quek was sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. Prevented from painting, he picked up the lantern-making trade instead. In recent years he has become a specialist in recreating patented figures, like the Hello Kitty and Disney characters. Doing such figures can be very difficult as it is extremely important that the lantern is identical to the original cartoon character, he said. "We had Hong Kong Disney people coming around to our factory floor when we did a big Disney Lantern Festival in Singapore a few years ago, and they really made sure everything was in proportion," Quek said.

Quek and his team come from Zigong in China's Sichuan Province, which is billing itself as the world capital of lantern making.

Spencer Tan, the general manager of Royal Vya Creative, the company for which Quek works, estimates that there are about 90 lantern-making companies in Zigong, employing 3,500 people. "The industry in Zigong is worth over 2 billion renminbi" or $2.6 million, a year, he said.

The city has had a long tradition of holding one of the grandest lantern festivals in China and its workers are in hot demand to stage lantern festivals throughout China and the rest of Asia.

In recent years, Royal Vya Creative started to export the concept of a big lantern festival to the West, first in Germany and then last year to Toronto. This year, it once again worked on Rogers Chinese Lantern Festival, the largest lantern festival in North America, building 40 giant sets with scenes recalling three important dynasties in China (Qin, Tang and Song), as well as colorful scenes depicting Chinese legends such as "The Fable of the White Serpent" or "A Thousand Miles for Love." The Toronto festival, which started on July 19, runs until Oct 7.

Quek is now in Singapore with another 45 professional lantern makers to construct manually the 5,000 lanterns for the light up at the Singapore Chinese Gardens this year. Every year Singapore, like many other Asian countries, celebrates the Mid-Autumn Festival, a traditional Chinese festival which falls on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month of the Chinese calendar, usually around mid- or late-September in the Gregorian calendar, and celebrates the abundance of the summer's harvest. This year, the theme is "The Magical Ocean" and visitors can expect fantasy scenes of "The Little Mermaid," prehistoric sea dinosaurs and the lost Atlantis.

His team is still making lanterns without using digital imagery. "I'm too old to use a computer," Quek said, laughing. He said that computer programs are certainly helping a new generation of lantern makers to improve the craft. "Visualizing in 3-D is actually quite difficult to do and computers have helped," he notes.

When they have finished their work in Singapore, the Royal Vya Creative team will move to Bangkok for a festival in November.

"Now you have lantern festivals all year round. Next year, we're starting a festival in Poland," Tan said.

But despite its success, the industry is facing some difficulties. Tan, who employs 70 workers, said he often did not have enough staff to meet demand. Getting young people to learn the craft is very difficult.

"Lantern making is hard work. It's long hours and is very physical and you also have to be willing to travel and be gone two or three months in a row for a show," Tan explained. Often, the craft of lantern making is passed from father to son, like in the case of Wen Gei Ha, 20. "My father was a lantern maker, and as a child I was always fascinated by lanterns. I kept on wondering what type of lantern I could work on one day," he said through an interpreter.

To encourage more young people to pick up the trade, Tan has suggested to the Zigong municipality that it set up a lantern institute. "I don't know whether this is going to happen, but the initial response was encouraging," he said.

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