Lanterns have always been part of many cultural celebrations around the world, and yes, here in Malaysia too. You’ll see them during festive seasons such as Chinese New Year and Mid Autumn Festival, or even all year round on traditional heritage streets.
But do you know the art that goes behind making them?
Tjien Chuen (or more known by his moniker Tjoan) tells us sadly that most of the younger generation wouldn’t be able to. As time continues to pass, it becomes an even bigger hurdle to keep this dying art alive.
But it’s not impossible, and with the current role he’s playing, he’s making do with what he can to keep the artform well in our society’s skills and consciousness.
The Unexpected Beginning
Tjoan’s story starts back in his teens when he was casually strolling through the streets of Penang. He stumbled upon a quaint store and peered inside to find someone in the midst of making traditional lanterns.
He stopped long enough to watch the entire process and unexpectedly fell in love with it.
He started involving himself more in the art, becoming the middle man between the lantern maker and those from temples who placed orders.
The lantern maker (or dubbed “master” as Tjoan calls him) never actually taught Tjoan to make lanterns from scratch—but he wasn’t stingy with the knowledge he had honed.
Each time Tjoan stopped by his store to make an order, he would ask him a few questions. Like forming a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces began to come together until Tjoan had an idea on how it worked.
Unfortunately, the master passed away but the orders still kept coming in. So Tjoan decided to take it upon himself to continue the master’s legacy by making them himself using the memories of what his master had told him.
Looking at photos of his work, I can see why his customers were charmed by them.
The first thing you’d note is that they’re beautiful, which probably explains why the people who buy his lanterns aren’t just Peranakan families or traditional Chinese temples. They can also be found in coffee houses and cafés as well.
In fact, Tjoan shared that one of his iconic works can be found in a Kedah café called Caffediem.
He shared that most of his work has its own charm, explaining why it’s a conscious decision to produce lanterns in large quantities, but rather run things on an order-based system.
“It takes about a month to complete one lantern, from A to Z. So having things done only when orders come in makes the process a lot more feasible for us,” said Tjoan.
When asked about profits, Tjoan said there’s no real loss but he couldn’t say that a significant flow of revenue is there.
“Some parts require materials that are more expensive to build. Nowadays, it’s wood blocks. Thankfully we have Peranakan people who still use lanterns for their cultural celebrations, so we’re able to continue making them,” said Tjoan to Vulcan Post.
Trying to keep a dying art alive can be taxing on one person so to share his experience with others, Tjoan started organising workshops in Penang and Ipoh to help teach the basics of lantern making as well as showcase some of his pieces.
I was surprised to know this wasn’t an activity that was just popular with foreigners. A lot of locals have also approached him with interest in his classes, where he usually teaches them how to make smaller lanterns.
“We only make big lanterns in Ipoh as they take several days to complete and there is only a select number of people teaching since not everyone has the right patience with this art,” said Tjoan.
I wondered whether it can be frustrating teaching something as intricate as lantern making to others. Tjoan thinks that because they’re tricky, and that’s what makes the challenge fun.
“Since lantern making is a traditional craft, a lot of patience and time is needed to create them so it’s not like people can just order the products and have it delivered immediately. It can be quite challenging but the end result is always worth it.”
Reaching Beyond The Heritage Streets
But he realised it would take more than just what was within his circle to ensure this traditional craft continued to survive.
He had a friend who wrote a book about traditional crafts that can be found in Penang. Since the lantern master had passed away, Tjoan was invited on his behalf instead during the book launch.
It was there that he learned about LokaLocal—a travel startup that focuses on providing local experiences to tourists—and its potential to push Tjoan’s workshop further. It was better to try than never.
“I could see that the founder was doing his best to promote the craft in Malaysia by creating a platform where everyone can easily contact each other. I do believe there is nothing wrong in trying new things and LokaLocal has been a good opportunity so far,” said Tjoan.
Aside from LokaLocal, Tjoan has an on-and-off collaboration with the Penang Apprenticeship Programme for Artisan (PAPA), an apprenticeship programme for sustaining traditional trades and skills in Penang.
“But mostly I rely on platforms like LokaLocal, organisations who help schedule dates for my workshops as well as my own initiatives to promote this art further,” said Tjoan.
Talking about his hopes, Tjoan sees himself getting to a point where he can put up samples of all the lanterns he’s made in his workshop to showcase his craft along with the beauty of the art.
“I hope to see people interested in understanding the meaning of using each lantern. I’m doing my best to keep this dying art alive since I believe it’s a unique part of our Malaysian culture.”
This article was written in collaboration with LokaLocal.
Feature Image Credit: LokaLocal