Au Yeung Ping Chi: Making art for Hong Kong's fashionable dead
Inside the cramped Bo Wah Effigies shop, a young man is hunched over a thick piece of paper, meticulously cutting out what looks like the frame for a pair of Wayfarer sunglasses. The craftsman, Au Yeung Ping Chi, has taken over his father's paper effigy business and transformed the ancient handicraft by making true-to-life versions of trendy consumer items -- iPhones, Gucci handbags -- with nothing more than colored sheets and glue.
Au Yeung's paper effigies are favored by the relatives of unfortunate Hong Kongers who have died young.
Making paper effigies of trend items makes death seem less frightening. — Au Yeung Ping Chi, paper effigy designer
The Chinese custom of burning paper offerings to the dead spawned the paper effigy business, in which scaled-down versions of items that are considered luxurious and desirable to the living, such as gold watches, cars, or even maids, are rendered with paper. The items are burned at gravesites in order to "deliver" them to the underworld where the dearly departed can receive them.
Au Yeung Ping Chi started helping out in his father's shop after graduating from design school about a decade ago.
"My first creative effigy was a dance machine. It sold for about HK$300, which was a good sum of money. I've been making effigies for young people ever since," says Au Yeung.
Au Yeung stands out in an industry made up of older craftsmen who have been making the same designs for the past 70 years. At the same time, the influx of cheap, mass-produced effigies from mainland China is making it hard for local businesses to survive. Au Yeung estimates that there are fewer than 100 craftsmen left in Hong Kong.
"Making an effigy requires lots of time and patience; it's
hard to attract young people to do it," he says.
Since becoming known for making effigies of trendy consumer items, Au Yeung's work has been in demand among middle-aged and even younger clients mourning children who have died tragically young.
"Sometimes their stories are heart-wrenching and sometimes I'm numb to them. I try not to pry," says Au Yeung. "Making paper effigies of trend items makes death seem less frightening." His most popular requests are for cameras, video games and brand-name handbags -- the things that Hong Kong kids desire while living.
Some projects are hard for Au Yeung to forget, such as the paper bride and groom dressed in traditional Chinese wedding clothes, burned so that a dead young couple could have a marriage in the underworld. Recently, he completed a pair of stilettos for young parents mourning their deceased daughter.
In his ten years in the business, Au Yeung has only had one order that he couldn't fill -- a retractable umbrella.
"I want to make one that can actually expand and retract, but I can't get it to work right. Every time I try to open the paper umbrella it breaks," he says. He's gone to the extent of buying an actual umbrella and taking it apart to examine its inner workings. He hasn't given up on the project.
Each of Au Yeung's unique creations take many hours to research and complete. Once sold, customers take them to gravesites and burn them to ashes in a matter of seconds. Au Yeung says his own special goodbye to each effigy by taking photos of them. "I have to remind myself that they are meant for people in the underworld to use," he says.
Bo Wah Effigies
2C Fuk Wing Street, Sham Shui Po, tel +852 2776 9171