Street Talk

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 - - UPFRONT -

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.

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