A FRIEND of mine who wanted to show his son how to make a paper lantern was disappointed when the sundry shops in Jinjang and Kepong he frequented no longer sold the transparent glass-paper he wanted. One of the shopkeepers even told him to just buy one of those accordion-shaped factory-produced paper lantern.
Determined not to be beaten in his quest, he drove all the way to Seremban over the weekend and managed to buy two sheets of glass paper from a shop there.
He has since completed the frame of a fish-shaped lantern together with his son, but had yet to paste the paper onto the frame. He called to ask how to make the paper taut and shiny.
Traditionally, I told him, once the paper was pasted onto the lantern frame, water was sprayed on it and the lantern was left to dry in the sun. Once dried, the paper would be pulled taut and shiny, just like a sheet of glass, after which the painting could be undertaken.
I asked my friend what prompted him to teach his son to make a paper lantern.
He said his son had watched a television documentary on lantern-making and had wanted to know if his father knew how to make one.
With the Mooncake Festival fast approaching (today), my friend thought it was a good idea to show his son how to make one. Not many people knew how to make them these days, he said.
During my teenage years, most of the Chinese community who lived in the villages knew how to make paper lanterns.
When we saw paper lanterns being hung up for sale at sundry shops to herald the Mooncake Festival annually, we would also start making ours. To be able to make an intricate paper lantern was a skill to be proud of for any boy or girl.
Back then, I remember, lantern making was a popular art class project in secondary schools. In mine, my Malay and Indian classmates also knew how to make them because our art teacher had made lantern-making a class project one year.
Many of us came up with no-brainers like the pumpkin-shaped lanterns made out of Milo tins where vertical slits were cut into the sides and the top portion compressed downwards to form a pumpkin shape.
The more hardworking among us came up with intricate paper lanterns such as dragons, unicorns, and airplanes.
One schoolmate surprised us with a carousel lantern — a big contraption that used the candle’s flame to power a hot air turbine that doubled up as a carousel.
He not only became the art teacher’s favourite but his lantern was the subject of discussion during science class as an example of applied physics. It also ended up in the headmaster’s room as bragging right.
Other community craft, not just making lanterns but also kites, opera masks, pottery, and a host of others, were also taught in school. I am not sure if they are still taught as part of the art syllabus, but those days, I remember, our teachers were as good in craft making as they were in paintings.
Instead of just visual art, they often took us off the beaten track into the realm of community craft making. And through these sessions, we learned plenty.
During one wau-making class, for example, my Malay friends taught me how to pick the strongest bamboo to make the kite’s spines.
During a lantern-making project, I taught them how to use rice paper and starch to keep the wire frames from slipping.
From one of our Indian friends, we all learned how to make simple clay pots that did not require firing in a kiln.
The community craft sessions were not only memorable because they were entirely a new experience for us, but they opened our eyes to the more intimate sides of our friends’ community’s day-to-day activities.
During these sessions, we gained an intimate knowledge and understanding of our friends’ cultures. Our forward-looking teachers had taught us what the syllabus did not — and that was to appreciate the diversity among us.