For the past decade Lee Sing-man, aka Uncle Man, has taught the traditional Chinese folk art form of tearing shapes from a single piece of paper to anyone who wants to learn. The “King of Paper Tearing Art” tells Janet Sun how he stumbled on it, and if he
HK Magazine: What inspired you to start paper tearing?
Lee Sing-man: I used to go back to Guangzhou every year to celebrate Chinese New Year. In 1983, I went back as usual, and was sitting in my family’s home with nothing to do. I saw next to me a bowl of mandarin oranges, and with them was a fai chun [auspicious decoration] that had
daai gat [大吉, lots of luck] written on it. There happened to be some red paper on a table nearby, so I tried tearing the paper into the shape of the words. My mother-in-law liked it so much she hung it on the wall. I knew nothing about paper-tearing back then. I just did my first piece out of curiosity.
HK: What do you think people can learn from studying this art form?
LS: If you are diligent enough and keep practising, you learn two things. First, this art form improves your confidence. I put my fingers exactly where I am going to tear. Second, it stimulates quick thinking. Your mind is able to construe almost immediately how to create the piece as soon as you’re told what words to make. You have to sketch the layout in your head before you begin tearing.
HK: Do you make a living from paper-tearing?
LS: No, I receive social security assistance from the government. I don’t collect tuition fees from my students. Some of the organizations who have invited me to teach pay me whatever they can. Some of my friends assumed that I would be invited to teach many paper-tearing classes and make big money from them, as I have given many media interviews. But I just take what I’m given. Before retiring, I worked as a courier for a shipping company. I was very happy because I got to meet many people. I used to tear paper while waiting outside offices for staff to collect their parcels.
HK: Can you run us through the steps for creating a torn-paper work?
LS: There aren’t any specific techniques. Normally I use the “three Cs” to teach others. The first one is to “see:” You observe and comprehend the layout from what you can see. The second one is si haau [思考, to think]: You think and arrange the piece in your mind. The third one is si [撕, to tear]: You begin tearing. The “three Cs” are all about coordinating your heart, hand and brain at the same time.
HK: Do you see your work as a unique art form that needs preserving?
LS: Yes, and that’s why I always say that all art forms come from the ordinary people. Because these art forms come from the people, they should be absorbed again and kept going by the people.
HK: Do you ever worry that your students will become better than you?
UM: If you want future generations to continue to practice this form of art, you need to tell people more about it. As long as someone shows interest in learning, I will go teach them— regardless of the distance. I hope all of my students can make better pieces than me. It’s a truism that the disciple surpasses the teacher. That’s why I always tell my students to spread the lessons that they have learned in class. This is the only way an art form can survive through the generations to come.
HK: Who are your students?
LS: I go around the city and teach. If you want this kind of folk art to continue over the generations, more people need to know about it, and the only way to make that happen is to teach.
When he’s not traveling, Uncle Man can usually be found in Kowloon Walled City Park demonstrating his work.