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Humans of Hong Kong: Coming up roses with Choi Wing-kei, flower plaque maker

By Celia Lee 9 February 2024

Hong Kong is home to a rich tapestry of traditional customs, arts, and crafts, well-known specialities being traditional paper models, cheongsam tailoring, and mahjong carving. Out of this kaleidoscope of cultural wonders, Chinese flower plaque making continues to produce dazzling works that stand as a monument to the craftsmen’s skill and dedication.

Choi Wing-kei is one of the few remaining flower plaque makers left in Hong Kong. Having inherited the craft, and later the family business, from his father, Choi was part of the effort that showcased the craft of flower plaque making to an overseas audience in 2014. Today, Choi continues to work in innovative and unimaginable ways, transforming a centuries-old craft into something relevant and trendy. We visited Choi at his workshop in Long Ping to chat about his passion for flower plaques, affinity for innovation, and the pride he takes in his work.

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“My father was a bamboo-scaffolding worker who focused on making flower plaques later in his life, so I was in touch with this craft from a young age. When I was in primary school, I was helping in the workshop with paper flowers and writing words. In middle school, I was mounting the plaques and building the bamboo structures. By the time I graduated from middle school, I knew everything there is to know about flower plaque making.”

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do after graduation and I noticed my father needed more help in the workshop, so I decided to help. And I’ve been doing this since. At the time, it was very much a temporary job. But as the years went by and my father grew old, I became more serious about making plaques, and implemented a few changes too, over time.

“Of course, I met many obstacles, the first being my father. He used to say I was doing something unnecessary and pointless even though my father was also inventive. He used to collaborate with artists to create paintings of deities and auspicious animals, which was not common in the trade during his time. When he stepped down, I was given more freedom to make decisions about new ideas I was introducing and I began to grow.”

“There’s no need for glue or screws when constructing flower plaques. We use wires to tie [the bamboo sticks] together. No matter how big the flower plaque is, you can see that only wires are used. You don’t need to use any tools, either. It is similar to zhizha (紙紮; Taoist paper art) lion dance heads, but usually, sandpaper is used, which is for a different purpose. We use wires because [flower plaques] are placed outdoors, while zhizha models are placed indoors and usually burnt [after the rituals]. Flower plaques have to stand the test of [different weather conditions], so the technique differs slightly.”

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“Some plaques are reusable, usually with some universal motifs for celebrations. The bamboo used for flower plaques are recycled from clothes-hanging bamboo (涼衫竹; loeng4 saam1 zuk1) and can last at least 10 years. Making one frame requires a lot of time, effort, and manpower. The dragons are drawn by masters who used to work with my father. These are painted with glazing paint; you can see the brushstrokes and character in the finished product. They’re usually reused since glazes make the finished work durable. I think these ones have been used for at least 20 years.”

“For the flowers on these plaques, they are paper flowers, which were normally used in 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. But their colours fade in the rain. So, in the mid-1990s, the industry changed to using tai flowers (shiny paper flowers) and we were the first to use them. Tai flowers are shiny, they can withstand the weather better, and can usually be kept in good condition for three weeks. In recent years though, the quality of these flowers has reduced drastically due to a change in manufacturer. They’ve become thinner, less vibrant in colour, and they fade very quickly, usually in three days, even if they are kept indoors. 

“For flower plaques placed outdoors, they are set up a few days before, and they won’t be revealed or admired immediately. When it comes to the opening date or ritual hour, the flower plaque would have already faded in colour.”

“I’ve changed to using silk flowers recently. These are more enduring; we can use them for a month without them fading in colour. We have kept the original colours of the paper flowers used in the 1970s for these silk flowers. They have more of a shape to them, and even though they’re not as eye-catching as tai flowers, at least they won’t fade as quickly.

“As for the main part of the plaque, we used to use paper, but we have recently switched to banner printing fabric. A paper background appears less two-dimensional, but like the flowers, the quality of this paper has also reduced and will fade when it rains or sits in the sun. Another thing is you are limited to what you can show on paper. Some colours you can’t use on paper, and more recently, we have received orders with English words or local slang words, which are also harder to write. Of course, with printing fabric, it seems to defeat the purpose of a flower plaque—if you have printed the message or slogan, you might as well just use that, right? So, we add more decoration to the printed fabric, like 3D words or glitter, to make the plaque more complicated and special.”

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“In the past, when everything was done by hand, there were many more steps to making a flower plaque. Usually, the quickest you could make one was in two days. Sometimes, when it got too humid, we had to put pieces indoors to dry with the air conditioning on.

“Even the flower plaque craft has trends. Recently, rose-gold glitter is more expensive than gold because it’s trendier. It does make some plaques look unique when we offer different colour contrasts. Rose gold usually comes out looking more elegant and elevated, which makes the customer more satisfied with the results. You have to change with the times.”

“Flower plaques are like bulletin boards; your design hinges on your experience and creativity. I used to hate making flower plaques, but gradually, I found my passion in the process. I was also lucky to have collaborated with local artists on a few projects, where I learnt their techniques and their affinity for innovation and creativity. Back then, I always vetoed their suggestions, but they convinced me to try out new techniques, and those flower plaques came out unexpectedly well— they taught me that I have to be brave about changing things up, even with a traditional craft.

“It’s like mooncakes. Every year, there’s something new and innovative, some flavours that are not your plain and simple lotus seed paste with egg yolk. For me, my direction of innovation is similar. While creativity and new ideas are wanted, you can’t steer too far from tradition and the established craft. You can’t just take a random object, mount it on the bamboo structure, and call it a flower plaque. For me, you have to include elements of flower plaques to call your work a flower plaque. You might be able to fool your audience, but you can’t fool yourself.”

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“Flower plaque making follows the seasons. You have Lunar New Year, then Ching Ming Festival, then after that, we usually work on projects for public organisations, then many birthdays of deities. In the past, I was quite free during July, because the low season would be just before the Hungry Ghost Festival. But since the 1997 handover, Julys have been packed with projects for Independence Day. You have Mid-Autumn Festival and at the end of the year, move-in ceremonies for temples and other da jiu (打醮; daa2 ziu3) festivals.”

“Even for funerals, we still do similar decorations and even LED or neon pieces, which might seem inappropriate. But I'm actually helping the family, especially the younger members and the sons and daughters of the deceased—they want to do one last thing for their parents at their funerals. For wai tsuen villagers, they will return to their village of birth for funerals, and they usually construct a spirit hall (靈堂; ling4 tong4) for the ceremony, symbolising the return of the spirit to its place of birth even beyond death, to say goodbye to their family, friends, and neighbours.

“So the stereotypical spirit hall is like the one in the movie Young and Dangerous. It’s very scary—it’s dark inside, black cloth is traditionally used, and strange animals are used as motif in decoration. Why do funerals have to be so scary? It’s like Halloween! I think funerals can be made more like Catholic or Protestant funerals, giving the dead a serene and comfortable death.”

“So, I swapped out the black cloth with white cloth on the flower plaques. I used a neutral-coloured peacock, and I decorated the words with blue glitter and LED—this completely changes the atmosphere and feel of the whole ceremony. The inspiration to use white instead of black cloth came from another flower plaque maker who worked on the spirit hall for Leslie Cheung. He decorated a spirit hall with big white drapes so that it almost looked like a wedding. When my own father passed, the idea came to me. I didn’t do it as well, but at least the spirit hall seemed welcoming and people felt comfortable being in it. 

“A death in the family causes a lot of pain, but I think there are ways to make the ceremony better for the family, and the dead would not want us to suffer in the face of their passing either, but it has to come from the heart.”

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“One of my most memorable projects was in 2014, where I brought flower plaques from Hong Kong to the US for the first time. At the time, it was an unreal experience for me. When I was little, I used to think whether there would be a chance for me to bring my flower plaques overseas. It seemed impossible. The first time I went overseas, I was very nervous; I remember being anxious and stressed even a month earlier. You can’t afford to forget to bring something.

“It was the annual Smithsonian Folk Festival. Every year, they invite two countries to participate. Each participant will have to bring over something related to their local culture to display in the US. China was chosen along with Africa for 2014 and was divided into north and south, and I was the representative of the south. We constructed a 38-metre-wide flower plaque, which is still the largest product I’ve worked on. Since then, I have been travelling all over for projects.”

“People who know flower plaques can differentiate between other plaques and my plaques. But sometimes even my wife can’t tell the difference. I get asked why I don’t advertise myself on my plaques, but I think if my name was on it, then the whole message of the plaque changes. If people want to find me, they will; the main thing is that the plaque looks good and fits the purpose.”

“It’s hard to find new blood in the industry. Because most think that it is difficult work. You have to be out in the sun or the rain all the time; you have to do manual labour. When you start out, you get calluses on your hands. Or they think it’s too hot in the summer and it’s too cold in the winter, and there’s not a lot of career development in this industry.

“But I think flower plaques will still exist in Hong Kong, probably on a smaller scale. For myself, I don’t work on such a big scale in terms of production anymore. I used to churn out 30 to 40 plaques, but now, I focus more on the quality rather than the quantity that I produce. I’d rather make memorable and innovative plaques than a hundred plaques. I don’t want to be stagnated. I want to preserve the essence of a flower plaque while making creative choices with my designs.”

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Celia Lee

Staff writer

Born and raised in Hong Kong and educated in the UK, Celia is passionate about culture, food, and different happenings in the city. When she’s not busy writing, you can find her scouting for new and trendy restaurants, getting lost in a bookstore, or baking up a storm at home.