Flowers at the door

Flowers at the door

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Wong Lai-chung has been teaching students the skills involved in making fa pai. Photos: Ricky Chung

A traditional craftsman in a fading art has been teaching young students the tricks of the trade, writes Lai Ying-kit

Wong Lai-chung paces the length of his workshop with a beam on his face, examining the work done by a group of secondary school students.

He nods approvingly at each part of what will become a giant red decorative display that will stand at the entrance to an exhibition.

Wong has been making fa pai - literally 'flower plaques' - for more than 30 years, and for the past three months he has been teaching the traditional craft to 20 students at the HKICC Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity. He hopes to pass the dying art to the younger generation who has not witnessed it in its heyday. Before the arrival of Hong Kong's mall culture, fa pai were mounted on bamboo scaffolds at festivals, shop openings, weddings, birthdays and family rituals.

'fa pai were everywhere back in the 1960s and the 1970s,' Wong says. 'You could often see them in the streets, in celebration of all kinds of events.'

fa pai can be as big as a cinema billboard, standing up to 7 metres tall and measuring 3 metres across. They are usually placed at the entrances to venues, Wong says.

The 51-year-old adds: 'Priests put them up in temples during festivals and rituals. Cantonese opera troupes used them to advertise new shows, and shops used them when they were opening or expanding.'

fa pai are usually red - the traditional colour for celebrations - and adorned with neatly handwritten couplets and paintings of auspicious animals to catch the attention of passers-by.

Wong says it takes about two weeks to create a fa pai. The work begins with cutting bamboo sticks into thin, flat strips that are tied together with wires to make the frameworks of the various parts. Wire gauze is then attached to the bamboo frames.

Artists pen congratulatory couplets and draw auspicious animals such as dragons and phoenixes. They prepare decorative accessories in separate processes. Then everything is put in place on the frame.

Wong recalls how, when he was learning the craft from his father as a 10-year-old, fa pai were still in huge demand. But times have changed, and far fewer people want them now, making the art a rarity. He says it is not possible to put up fa pai in large shopping centres.

'It is sad the fa pai tradition has declined so much,' he says, adding that it really began to lose popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

'Now we seldom see one, except during the Hungry Ghost Festival.'

Wong says there were still 20 shops making fa pai in the 1980s but now there are less than five, including his. He has been running his fa pai shop in Sham Shui Po for three decades.

Back in his school workshop, Wong is happy to see his students quickly pick up the craft and even add some innovative ideas of their own - velvet as a finishing material, themes from popular culture, and elements of contemporary art.

'I'm glad to see them using fa pai techniques in their own artworks,' he says.

Two giant fa pai and more than 20 innovative miniature versions created by students are on display at the HKICC Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity in Lok Fu.

Wong will hold a workshop at the school tomorrow at 3pm to give the public an introduction to the techniques of designing and making fa pai.

A second workshop by the craftsman will be held on the West Kowloon Waterfront Promenade at 3pm, on December 12.

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