The Paper Oblation Craftsman of Penang are much talked about but have you ever wondered what their produce are used for and how these unique ‘artwork’ are made? Janice Kua talks to Ah Ban, one of the paper oblation craftsman in Penang.
Located on Penang’s Carnarvon Street, Ah Ban Paper Oblation Shop was established by Mr. Loh Ah Ban’s father. Ah Ban has been in this trade for 60 years and feels very fortunate now to have his son-in-law, Gary who is interested in the trade.
Ah Ban’s forte is making paper crafts for Chinese ritual offerings to deities and during festivals. In Chinese customs, there’s a ritual where paper houses and replicas of servants, mobile phones, cars, household goods etc. are burnt when someone passes away, and it has to be done for the deceased at least 3 days before his/her funeral. It is believed that the offerings made will be brought over with the deceased to their afterlives. Other than what’s being offered traditionally, Ah Ban also makes these paper effigies in modern designs when there is a request. As this ritual is very strongly observed by the Chinese community in Penang, majority of Ah Ban’s orders are during the Hungry Ghost Festival, and for funerals. They do not get many walk-in customers. Majority of the times, paper houses and replicas they’ve produced will be supplied to shops around Penang who sells these paraphernalia. The Chinese believe that the seventh month in the lunar calendar is when spirits roam around the earth. As such, replicas of the King of Hades are made during the Hungry Ghost Festival. The King of Hades is said to be the guardian of each neighbourhood and it is believed that He will observe and protect the people from being disturbed by the spirits. The Hades are in different colours, with each carrying different meanings. As believed, neighbourhoods with Red Hades are the safest and the Blue Hades will usually be placed at neighbourhoods that experiences the most disturbance. White Hades are commonly used by those of Cantonese native. The faces of the Kings of Hades are made from scratch at Ah Ban’s shop, where he starts by using a large amount of paper that is soaked in water.
The process of making any of these paper effigies is long and meticulous. A lot of the steps are still being done by hand, from assembling each stick to the patching of coloured papers. Each paper house has a basket containing paper money assembled to it and the use of these baskets differs according to the native origins of each family. The different natives of Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese each uses different types of baskets, varying from colour and shape. Paper money is placed in the basket as the Chinese believe that this money will come as useful to the deceased in their afterlife.
At Ah Ban’s, the framework of these paper houses is made using Batam wood and Japanese paper. This Japanese paper has a high cost, ranging from an average of RM800 per packet, and this is used to tie each stick that is made from Batam wood to another. To secure it further, Ah Ban uses self-made glue made from multipurpose flour. When the paper houses are completed, it is the practise to have the deceased’s name written in Chinese on its top, right and left of the paper house.
One of Ah Ban’s specialty is using high quality printed coloured papers on the body of these paper effigies, where the colours will glow when it is in contact with light. The designs of these replicas are created in-house, using coloured paper. At Ah Ban’s shop, it usually takes them a day to complete a 6-feet paper house and about 2 days for an 8-feet paper house. Larger paper houses will require more time and for paper houses as big as 12-feet, it’ll take them up to a week to complete. The prices for the different sizes of paper houses can vary vastly. A 6-feet paper house will cost about RM1,000 and the price could go up to RM10,000 for a 12-feet product.
Though tedious and tiring, Ah Ban and Gary puts in their best in completing their work. Their shop is open everyday from as early as 9am till 6pm. They are pleased to be known as one of the most sought-after paper oblation craftsman in Penang and they are determined to deliver top quality in every piece of their product.