Like some school leavers, Tan Kian Heng wasn’t certain about what his future would look like after completing his secondary education in 2011.
“My Form Five results were average, and I couldn’t decide whether to further my studies or find a job. My parents wanted me to study, but I wasn’t interested in attending college.
“My older brother encouraged me to work as a lion head maker, as he knows I am artistic. And, I had been a lion dancer for over a decade. I took his advice and I have been in this business for 11 years. I love every bit of my job,” says Tan, 30.
Tan is one of the youngest lion head makers in the country.
He isn’t interested in pursuing a corporate career but is intent on mastering his chosen craft as it allows him to tap into his creativity.
And, Tan finds comfort in the fact that he is helping to uphold an ancient Chinese tradition.
“Very few youth are interested in this business due to the long work hours it entails. It’s a tedious job, and the salary isn’t that attractive if compared to executives working in the corporate sector.
"But I enjoy it because I can breathe life into this dying traditional art. I especially like to create intricate decorative animal fittings for lion heads,” says the former student of SM Chong Hwa in Kuala Lumpur.
He is apprenticing under Lim Meng Kok, a master lion head crafter who has close to five decades of experience in the craft, at Lo Fo Chi Enterprise. The Kepong-based company makes handcrafted lion heads.
Tan has been part of the Titiwangsa-based Teck Loong Dragon and Lion Dance team since he was a teenager. It was there that he developed an interest in repairing and crafting lion heads.
“I may not work in an air conditioned office or wear nice clothes to work. My salary might be smaller than a graduate’s salary. But I’m happy to make lion heads. This is because I am passionate about it. And it allows me to explore my creativity.
“I have grown very close to my colleagues because we share an interest in crafting lion heads. Over the years, we have become very close, almost like family,” says the soft-spoken lad.
Like the rest of his colleagues, Tan is skilled at his craft – from constructing the base of the lion head out of rattan to painting the constructed head with different colours and designs.
But his favourite task is fixing ornaments, beads and fur onto the lion’s head. He also specialises in making decorative attachments for the lion head. It includes Chinese mythical creatures like the dragon and phoenix, and other animals like koi fish, cobras, and bats.
His creations are unique, and they add more colour and significance to the specially commissioned lion heads.
“These customised lion heads are created for Chinese associations and temples. I create the ornaments based on our customer’s requests. For ideas, I turn to Google and social media platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Instagram.”
The frames are created using strips of rattan and wire. Then, square strips of cotton are placed over the frame and left to dry for 24 hours. Next, Tan sticks kite paper on the structure and leaves it overnight. The next day, he paints it and adds attachments like faux fur, eyes and beads.
“The hardest part is to come up with new animal attachments and figuring out how to fix them to the lion head. Everything is done manually, without the assistance of any software. It is always a challenge to visualise the final outcome,” shares Tan, who takes between two days and a week to complete each handcrafted animal.
His job has taught him patience and persistence.
“Like any job, I have had a fair share of challenges as a lion head maker.
“But the secret is to persevere and never give up. The job has also taught me to remain calm and composed in stressful situations.
“I am always happy to see my creations in temples and Chinese associations.”
Tan thinks people should choose a career that suits them.
“Find a job that meets your interest and passion. It is a blessing if you can turn your hobby into a successful profession. I am glad I’ve ventured into this profession because I am using my artistic talents to earn a living.”