Welcome to Humans of Hong Kong, a brand-new story series on Localiiz that takes a deeper look at the many colourful characters and unique personalities that call our beloved city home. We visited Master Yu in his small shop in Hung Hom, where he crafts lion dance heads and zhizha (紙紮; Taoist paper art), traditional paper models of real-life items that Chinese people burn as an offering to deceased loved ones. As the busy veteran built yet another piece from scratch, we chatted about the paradox of tradition, a duty to death, and more.
“I was always interested in tradition since I was very young, especially in traditional Chinese papercrafts. My interest was in lion dance heads: I self-learned everything, doing research on my own and going around the city to observe the masters in the craft at work. Of course, my classmates made fun of my esoteric hobby, but I thought it was cool and worth preserving.
“My parents didn’t support my career choice at first because they saw it as an occupation for old people, not for young people like me back then. My dad was also a Dit Da (鐵打) doctor, so my parents wanted me to inherit the family business, and although I was interested in it, I had even more interest for lion dance heads.”
“Shopping trolleys, nail clippers, wooden carts… I get zhizha requests for everything you can think of. In the past, people merely wanted simple things like paper cash, and then they started to request clothes, food, or even an apartment. Now, people ask for trendier things, such as computers or iPhones, but in the end, it’s all down-to-earth stuff related to our daily lives.”
“One time, someone asked for a zhizha dolly cart as an inside joke, so that they could tell their friend, ‘You haven’t worked enough when you were alive—time to continue in the afterlife!’ Another memorable incident was a life-sized wheelchair that I made. It was a rush order, and when I finally finished it at the end of the day, I stored it at the back of my shop. But then a customer walked in, thought it was real, and sat right on the thing! I was at the shop next door when I heard a loud crash. At that moment, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
“People’s most important milestone in life is the death of a loved one. If you don’t like certain people anymore, you can always get new friends, choose a new partner, buy another car, and so on. We have choices for all of these. But death is final: There is no choice, no second chance. So those of us in the death care industry must come to work every day. If I left for a holiday, how can I help those who must take care of their deceased loved ones? No matter how hard the situation is—rainstorm, typhoon, you name it—we still need to come to work. Even if I’m so sick I’m on my deathbed, I still have to come to work. I think that I sacrificed a lot—such as my youth—but if you’re going to go into this industry, this is the norm as our sense of duty is very strong.”
“I don’t get any holidays other than a few days off during the Chinese New Year. Small businesses like mine don’t have the ability to hire extra help, so I have to do everything myself, from importing materials to taking orders to making the zhizha. It’s a tough industry that has been hit hard in recent years as more and more of the younger generation either become Christians or don’t believe in tradition anymore.
“Nonetheless, I am confident zhizha would not disappear in Hong Kong as it’s closely intertwined with Hongkongers’ lives. When they’re happy, such as on Chinese New Year or Mid-Autumn, Hongkongers will burn zhizha to send items to their ancestors and celebrate with them. When they’re unhappy, they’ll burn zhizha, too. So yes, our industry did shrink by a lot—there are a couple of dozen zhizha masters and only eight or ten lion head dance masters remaining—but I think it will never disappear completely.”
“Tradition is a paradoxical thing. It’s necessary to preserve because of its rich, innumerable years of history, yet it’s hard to do so as the younger generation doesn’t have the patience for it. Besides, the returns for the amount of time and money put into the craft always fall short. You won’t strike gold working in the traditional arts, but you’d at least make enough to meet your basic needs. Tradition is fading in this age, so I must do my best to preserve such traditional arts. Look at Hong Kong’s traditional paper crafts industry—it’s over a century old, and known internationally for the high calibre of products we produce. And so I feel a strong sense of duty to preserve my predecessors’ craft and ethos.”
“I do feel torn that my works of art can take days to complete, but are then incinerated in just a few seconds. Even so, it’s my duty to help customers relieve their emotions and pay respects to their deceased loved ones. As an artist, it is a pity, but if you consider the purpose behind my craft, it is essential and necessary. Still, we should all do our best, no matter what we do. I either refuse people’s orders, or put 10,000 percent effort into it—not 100 percent, but 10,000 percent. At the end of the day, I hope the customer is satisfied, happy, and appreciative of my piece. That is the most important goal for me.”