Chang Hsu-pei (張徐沛) is one of the few remaining masters of the traditional art of pasted-paper sculpture in Taiwan.
In pasted-paper sculpture, also known as paper pasting (紙糊), the artists cut and paste paper on bamboo frameworks to create a wide range of paper effigies, from luxurious mansions and fancy cars to oversized paper dolls and mobile phones.
The works are usually created for religious rituals or funerals, where they are burned as an offering or a gift for the deities or the deceased.
The labor-intensive craft was widely practiced until machines and modern technologies gradually replaced skilled practitioners.
Born into a paper-crafting family in Taipei’s Dalongdong (大龍峒) area, the 65-year-old Chang started learning the techniques of pasted-paper sculptures from his father and grandfather when he was 14.
Chang’s father was the fourth-generation descendant of the founder of Mao Hsing Chai (茂興齋), a popular century-old paper effigy shop in the area.
Chang opened his own paper effigy store in the 1980s in Sinjhuang (新莊) in what was then Taipei County, naming it the Hsin Hsin Paper Sculpture Store (新興糊紙店).
With more than five decades of experience, Chang is proficient in the three most essential skills for paper effigy masters: bamboo tying, paper cutting and painting.
He was honored with a New Taipei City (新北市) Master of Traditional Arts Award last year.
Much of his work was never documented photographically because he did not have a camera in the early days, he said.
Chang remains a modest man despite his skills, saying: “I do not think any of my artwork really stands out from the rest. They all look pretty much the same to me.”
“All things are difficult before they are easy,” Chang said, referring to the several months he spent learning how to make a bamboo framework.
Chang said compared with producing bamboo frames, painting required a lot more work and energy.
“Whether they are drawings of men, animals or flowers, they have to be life-like if they are to appear on my work,” Chang said.
“However, as this process is too time-consuming for customers nowadays, most paper effigy shops have delegated this work to machines,” he said.
Chang said it takes him just a few minutes to make a cutout, with the same pair of scissors he has been using for 50 years.
The paper sculpture industry has experienced a great deal of change in recent years, including an apparent decline in religious organizations’ willingness to use such products because of their vulnerability to water damage and a shift in people’s choices of offerings for the dead, Chang said.
“I have received an increased number of orders for modern-style house models, which require a lot of work to make because they not only have to be symmetrical, but they must also come with a miniature TV, kitchen and bathroom,” Chang said.
The demand for replicas of clothing and home appliances has also grown, he said.
One factor that has encouraged him to preserve the traditional art is his 30-year-old daughter, who has expressed an intention to carry on the family tradition, Chang said.
“Although it gives me comfort knowing that my little girl is willing to continue the family business, I cannot help but worry whether the industry will vanish over time,” Chang said.
“The least I can do is make sure each of my paper sculptures is created with great care and is of the highest quality,” he said.