IPOH, Feb 10 — If you thought Chinese New Year lanterns were only about the usual red and gold coloured patterns, seeing Chuen Mun Wai’s handiwork will make you think again.

Chuen, 39, is believed to be one of only two people in Malaysia that makes and sells traditional surname lanterns — which are commonly used by Peranakan Chinese to decorate their homes for special occasions.

Many of the lanterns used during Chinese New Year are red in colour and made from synthetic materials, but surname lanterns are different.

Made of bamboo and cotton cloth, surname lanterns get their name from the Chinese characters that are painted on them.

They are also marked with the region that the surname originates from, in addition to unique patterns and drawings symbolising aspects of Chinese culture.

Chuen uses bamboo grown in Perak, but gets quality cotton from China and India to ensure the quality of his lanterns.

If taken care of properly, he said, the lanterns can last decades.

Bamboo is bent and woven to create the lantern’s structure.
Bamboo is bent and woven to create the lantern’s structure.

It can take Chuen two weeks to complete a lantern, depending on size and complexity, as it is a process that requires a lot of skill.

“After cutting and whittling down the bamboo, it must be carefully bent and woven together to create the structure.

“Shaping the bamboo is very hard, which is why many lanterns are made with wires nowadays.

“However, I prefer to use bamboo because it is viewed as a symbol of strength and virtue.”

Chuen’s interest in lantern-making began by accident, when he came across a lantern shop during a visit to Penang.

“I was 17, and had just finished my Form Five exams. I drove to Penang to visit a friend but lost my way there, and I found myself in a lantern shop.

“I was amazed by the beauty and tradition of the lanterns.

“I was also taken aback by the skills needed to make them.”

Chuen had, in fact, stumbled across Penang’s Tai Keat Seong store, which offered handmade lanterns.

With his interest piqued, he kept returning to the store to learn the trade from its owner, who passed away around six years ago.

“He believed it would be better for me to learn the skills myself so he would just tell me the methods, instead of showing me.

“Over the years, I gathered as much skills as I could and kept practising so I could be like him.”

Initially, Chuen honed his skills on a part-time basis as he had a day job doing quality assurance for an electronics company.

But he took the business full-time around eight years ago, realising the need to carry on the lantern making tradition.

He has been producing the traditional lanterns single-handedly, selling them in Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

“The lanterns are important for the Peranakan people because it is a part of their heritage.

“The demand is highest during special occasions because the lanterns will be hung in front of the house during Chinese New Year, Chap Goh Meh, Qing Ming, and even when a family celebrates the birthday of an elder.”

Depending on the size, a pair of Chuen’s lanterns can range from RM1,800 to RM2,500.

However, he said the price is offset by the quality of the lanterns.

“People don’t hang lanterns all year round, and as long they take care of the lanterns by keeping them away from the elements, they can last a long time.”

In the hands of Chuen, the 600-year-old tradition of surname lanterns should also last a long time.

He realises the importance of maintaining the tradition, and feels that making lanterns is a labour of love.

“As I continued learning, I learned to love making lanterns. It calms me down and opens my mind so I can think clearly,” he said.

“The lanterns have history and hidden messages passed down from generation to generation. Without them, something will be missing from our culture.”