Effigies a work of art for makers

Koay deftlymaking a smallpaper lantern.

THEY know their finished pieces will end up in ashes but it does not stop paper effigy makers from taking their profession seriously and seeing their creations as works of art.  

Most of them are only remembered when it is the Hungry Ghost Festival or when someone dies. 

Advanced technology and commercialised products are taking over their place and many of the younger generation have no interest in what they offer. 

Still, many of these artists have been quietly upholding the tradition for decades, in predominantly Chinese areas like Jinjang. 

“I’m old now and have slowed down,” said 61-year-old Koay Thiam Kua, who has been producing paper effigies for half a century. 

Koay learnt the trade from his brother when he was just 10. His brother had picked up what he knew from their late father. 

“I did not like going to school. Since young, I loved art and always wanted to draw huge movie posters and advertisement boards,” he said in Cantonese.  

“My brother felt that it was too dangerous because I needed to climb up high places to do the painting.  

Koay adding the finishing touchesto a statue of the God of Hades athis workshop in Jinjang Utara.

“He taught me to make paper effigies instead and I have been hooked on it ever since. 

“To me, this is art,” he said.  

His workshop in Jinjang Utara is a make-shift wooden building. 

“I also work at the site where the order comes from. If the order is from a temple or people in Klang, then I travel there every day with all the tools and material needed for my work,” he said. 

While talking, he grabs a scrap paper from a wide table scattered with paper, colouring material and half-done effigies. 

He folds the paper into a narrow strip with his nimble fingers, slides it between rusty rollers to create creases, shapes the paper into a circle and stretches it out to form a lantern. 

His son, Chee Yong, 33, and two relatives in their early 30s are working on other items like making the God of Hades effigies, boats and horses.  

They do not draw the designs first or measure with rulers.  

“Everything is inside here,” he said, pointing at his temple and added that to make the effigies, creativity is a must. 

“We started making the items last month.  

Most of my orders are from regulars, who are mostly chairmen of groups organising Hungry Ghost Festival rituals at various housing estates. 

“There are less orders this year,'' Koay said.  

He explained that the effigies burnt during the seventh lunar month are offered to wandering spirits or otherwise known as “street buddies”.  

Chee Yong working on some of the smaller effigies.

Effigies, usually in the shape of majestic mansions, are also made for families who offer them to their departed relatives in the hope of making them comfortable. 

“People pay me to make these items.  

Even though they are going to burn all the items I make, I ensure customers are satisfied with my work,'' he said. 

“People believe that these offerings reach the dead and I like to think so, too,” he said.  

Another effigy maker, Lim Kok Ang, 52, who is based in Jinjang Selatan, said ashes of effigies burnt during the seventh lunar month could reach as high as a five-storey building, and that this showed the spirits were picking up the items. 

“Although I have not seen any evidence of this, I believe in this age-old practice,” Lim said at his workshop, also a stage area. 

The place is filled with 4m-high God of Hades effigies and workers are kept busy pasting coloured paper on bamboo frames. 

Some of the smaller effigies hanging in Koay’s workshop.

“We are making about 20 statues this year for my regular customers,” he said. 

He said it usually takes his skilled workers five days to make one statue.  

He also pointed out details like motifs on the statues with pride. 

The market price for a God of Hades effigy ranges from RM500 to over RM1,000, depending on the size and other details. 

Paper effigy makers earn more during this month and at other times of the year, they rely on orders for paper mansions and so on, which are priced from RM600. 

The effigy makers fear their art may be a thing of the past soon.  

“The younger folks are not interested in this trade,” said Koay.

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