For many adults, their childhood memories of the Mid-Autumn Festival include carrying glass paper lanterns lit with candles around the neighbourhood.
Popular lantern designs included the dragon, fish or rabbit, as well as the foldable paper tanglung.
“There is also a song that the children would sing that goes, ‘foh siu tang lung, yit siu yit hong’, ” Datuk Liew Kon Seng, president of the Malaysia Lantern Art Association (MLAA), said in Cantonese during this interview recently. That translates to: As the tanglung catches fire, the more it burns and the redder it becomes.
These days, it is also common to see huge lanterns displayed at shopping malls, Chinese associations or Mid-Autumn Festival events.
Many of these displays are produced by the MLAA, established in 2014 to preserve the art of lantern making and design.
“Actually a group of us with an interest in lantern art first got together in 2010 to share our passion. In 2011, we went to Taiwan to learn the techniques of the art. We also took lessons from lantern masters in China, and have gone there a few times to see their lantern shows, which are very grand and elaborate, ” said Liew.
He added that, in Malaysia, the art form is relatively new.
“Lanterns are very much a part of Chinese culture. In olden-day China, people would hang many traditional lanterns with candles, especially in rural areas, during the Mid-Autumn Festival, ” he said.
The festival – known as Zhong Qiu Jie in Mandarin – falls on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, which is also the middle of autumn, and lasts for three to seven days.
At this time, the moon is at its fullest and brightest. The festival also marks the end of the Hungry Ghost Festival, which falls on the preceding month.
The history of the Mid-Autumn Festival goes back over 2,000 years, when it was celebrated as a post-autumn harvest celebration to thank the gods for a bountiful harvest.
Many scholars believe that the festival first began during the Song dynasty (960–1279), with origins in moon worship. During the reign of Emperor Tai from the Northern Song dynasty, the 15th day of the eighth month was designated as Mid-Autumn’s day.
These days, Liew said, getting people – especially the younger generation – to learn about the art of lantern-making is not easy.
“Unless they have the knowledge of Chinese culture, they would not be interested.
“It is a tough art but if you have the passion, it will not be hard, ” he said.
As part of efforts to preserve the art form, the association holds regular lantern-making workshops for university students as well as members of the public. The committee also frequently visits Taiwan’s lantern shows during Chap Goh Meh, which attracts people from all over the world, to view the latest creations.
Besides the Mid-Autumn Festival, Chinese New Year and Wesak are also busy periods for the association, which will receive requests for lantern displays.
This year, due to Covid-19, it is only displaying their work at two shopping malls in Kuala Lumpur, namely KL Gateway and Cheras Leisure Mall.
From life-size horses and dragons, to modern cartoon characters and mythical creatures, the lanterns that can be produced are endless.
“The designs are only limited by one’s imagination, ” said Gary Wong Siew Keong, vice chairman of the association and one of the lead lantern artists.
Confessing that he never had an interest in handiwork before this, the 45-year-old first joined a lantern-making workshop to accompany his wife back in 2012.
He then took part in his first competition the same year, organised by the Kuala Lumpur Chinese Assembly Hall, where he won first prize for his project entitled Under The Sea.
“That was my first and most difficult project, which measured 10ft (3m) in length and 10ft (3m) in height.
“I was very happy with the final result, which went beyond my expectation, ” said Wong, adding that it took him about three months to complete the project.
From then on, his passion for lantern art continued to burn.
“Seeing the final result is a very satisfactory and rewarding feeling that money cannot buy, ” said Wong, whose day job is in sales.
Last year, he also took home the grand prize at a competition held in Sunway Velocity, Kuala Lumpur, with his double peacock betta fish creation.
Wong’s house – where he crafts the lanterns – is equipped with all the tools and machinery he needs. His wife helps him with the fabric coverings of the lanterns, which are usually made of velvet.
“It’s tiring and tough work because we use our bare hands to bend thick, hard wires to form the shape and frame of a particular design, ” he explained.
Wong added that he starts by forming the frame for the head, followed by its details, before he proceeds to the body. For some designs, there is a frame or base for the structure to stand on. Soldering work is also part of the process, another laborious task.
Before the fabric covering is put on, waterproof lights are fixed within. Wong sometimes paints onto the fabric to create a more realistic feel, for example on a human figure lantern.
Being a perfectionist, Wong would at times not be satisfied with his work and discard an entire creation to start anew. He admits he is his fiercest critic.
“If I am not satisfied with the end result, I cannot let it through. Lantern art, like a photograph, can tell a story or convey an emotion.
“It is an art form and it’s up to you to create what inspires you. We can make any design with lantern art, modern or traditional. We can add LED lights, music or make it move.
“In the future, I hope to create realistic-looking designs with robotic elements in it, ” he enthused.
Indeed, the sky’s the limit for Wong, whose love for the art looks bent on staying white hot.
Mid-Autumn Festival Lantern Art
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