A master at turning trash into lanterns







Koh putting finishing touches to his lanterns that were made with recyclable item. — Photos: ART CHEN/The Star

Koh putting finishing touches to his lanterns that were made with recyclable item. — Photos: ART CHEN/The Star

THE saying that one man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure is clearly reflected in 65-year-old Koh Liang Sia’s lanterns, which are made of mostly recyclable items.

Plastic bottles, cutlery and unwanted biscuit boxes are some of the main materials used in making the lanterns.

His speciality is converting the recyclables into objects resembling everyday items.

For example, a plastic globe that sits on a plastic spoon with two cotton buds sticking out from the spoon’s handle resembles a snail, while a curled-up nylon rope is made to look like muruku.

“I always believe that there is no limit to your imagination.

These plastic durians and rambutans look so realistic.
These plastic durians and rambutans look so realistic.

“Transforming these recyclable items into animals, food and flowers need a lot of creativity and the right material to look like the real ones.

“My lanterns are made with about 80% recyclable items. Other items used to make the frame are metal rods fastened together by cable tie among other materials,” he said.

Koh started his hobby of making lanterns in 1982.

He started off with translucent paper in making the lanterns but gradually shifted to other mediums.

His passion for the art grew after he emerged first runner-up in a lantern-making contest organised by a shopping centre in Kuala Lumpur.

Koh and his wife Chong Siew Lin, 57, posing with the numerous trophies he won in competitions over the years.
Koh and his wife Chong Siew Lin, 57, posing with the numerous trophies he won in competitions over the years.

He then switched to using recyclable items to create different shapes and sizes of lanterns in 1983.

“I used to make food processing machines in the day and fill my time making lanterns at night.

“Using recyclable materials to make lanterns is meaningful and I want to spread awareness on the importance of the environment.

“Lanterns are an important part of Chinese culture during the Mid-Autumn Festival but only a few people know how to make lanterns, let alone make them using recyclable items.

A snail sits on a Rafflesia plant made from a plastic spoon and cotton buds.
A snail sits on a Rafflesia plant made from a plastic spoon and cotton buds.

“Cultural departments should promote lantern making during the festival and preserve the tradition,” he said.

Koh’s lanterns are easily distinguishable by the vibrancy of myriad colours and the thematic approach in each lantern.

His Malaysia-themed lantern for example, depicted Malaysian food such as the cone-shaped roti tissue, muruku, ketupat, kacang putih, Chinese tea as well as dried meat or more commonly known as bakkwa.

It also showcased Malaysia’s multicultural society.

Koh is also skillful in spray-painting the lanterns to make the objects look more realistic.

Koh uses cable tie to fasten lantern frames.
Koh uses cable tie to fasten lantern frames.

He also uses hot glue on plastic to enhance the details and different textures on the lanterns.

Koh said he once fooled a friend by offering him a plastic bakkwa made for the lantern.

“Before making a lantern, I would always think of ways to innovate new designs with my own personal touch and concept. I go for styles and supplementary objects that no one else have made.

“Lantern-making is like building a house. First, I work on the frame before covering it with recyclable items as well as pairing it with a theme.

“To ensure the lantern is more ‘alive’, I add motorised parts to some of the subject and tell a story with the design,” he said.

One of the lanterns for example, depicts a bird protecting its chick from a snake slithering up the nest.

A plate of bakkwa made of plastic sheets and hot glue.
A plate of bakkwa made of plastic sheets and hot glue.

A motor oscillates the snake’s jaw and bird’s wings to show movements as though the bird is aware of the threat.

“Lantern makers should not take the art lightly and simply utilise recyclable items to make lanterns.

“It has to come with a mixture of detailed painting and meaningful concept behind the art,” he said.

Koh added that he took about two weeks to complete a small lantern.

“For bigger ones, it would take me more than a month depending on the size and details.

“There is no short-cut in making these lanterns.

“One has to observe how things are done, the material and concept used in making one. Do not be shy to ask the lantern-maker about their creation and always practise to improve,” he said.

Malaysian delicacies such as roti tissue, satay and muruku are made with recyclables and added to the lanterns.
Malaysian delicacies such as roti tissue, satay and muruku are made with recyclables and added to the lanterns.

Koh added that the hobby gave him a lot of satisfaction.

“It is fun and I consistently explore new ideas to make the lanterns.

“Sometimes, I will take these lanterns for competition.

“My personal record is making a 7.62m-tall 1Malaysia lantern that was displayed at Central Market,” he said.

Koh stores all the trophies he won in competitions in a room on the top floor of his two-storey house in Petaling Jaya.

He urged more people to take up the hobby and hoped the government would support it to inspire the younger generation.

“Many people are interested but they do not know where to start.

“The government should also create more platforms for interested individuals to exercise and expand their creativity in lantern making.

“Organisers of lantern-making competitions should appoint experienced judges to appraise the workmanship and artistic value of the lanterns,” he said.

“For those who are already making lanterns, I encourage them not to stop as this trade might soon be forgotten,” he added.

Central Region , Lanterns