Meet the Punk Rocker Constructing Life-Sized Paper Effigies for Malaysia’s Ghosts

In a cramped studio tucked right into a sweltering coastal metropolis in northwestern Malaysia, Koh Eng Keat works on the gilded roof of a seven-foot-tall papier-mâché mansion. Paper scraps and splinters of wooden litter the ground round him. As he glues printed floral motifs on the mansion’s partitions, the sleeve of black tattoos on his proper arm flexes.

Tall, long-haired, and inked, Keat and his father Koh Ah Bah run 358 Customized Effigies Workshop out of a working-class neighborhood in George City, the capital of the northwestern Malaysian state of Penang, which sits on the tip of Penang Island. The workshop, which his father began in 1996 and moved to its present location in 2013, is crammed with strips of wooden that Keat and his father bend, minimize, and glue into paper effigies—all the things from full-sized BMWs, iPhones, to 10-foot-tall mansions. Then throughout a conventional Chinese language memorial service to honor the lifeless, all of it goes up in flames.

Keat and his father typically construct elaborate papier-mâché mansions, like this one. The mansions are one in every of their commonest commissions.

When he was youthful, Keat wished nothing to do together with his father’s work and all the things to do with Malaysia’s underground music scene. At 17, he began working in a bakery and taking part in the drums within the various rock group Hui Si Di Dai. Years later, he performed drums within the hardcore punk band Weotskam and based the doom band Coma. However 10 years in the past, Keat returned to the household enterprise—music wasn’t paying the payments and his father wanted the assistance. At present, Keat and his father are one in every of solely seven artisans nonetheless making paper effigies on the island.

Most of Keat and his father’s prospects are ethnic Chinese language folks from Malaysia and Singapore who use the effigies throughout kong teik. Held 49 days after the loss of life of a beloved one, kong teik is a funerary ceremony practiced in Buddhism and Taoism the place the dwelling conduct rituals on behalf of the deceased. Within the closing act of kong teik, papier-mâché houses, meals, cell telephones, and all kinds of recent luxuries are set on fireplace. “Chinese language paper choices are distinctive in being replicas of actual objects which might be transmitted to the world of the lifeless by burning,” says anthropologist Jean DeBernardi of the College of Alberta, Canada, writer of The Manner that Lives within the Coronary heart: Chinese language Common Faith and Spirit Mediums in Penang, Malaysia.

In Taoism, Buddhism, and conventional Chinese language folks religions, a soul can solely be reincarnated after passing by means of diyu (“earth jail” in Mandarin Chinese language), a subterranean labyrinth of chambers historically divided into ten courts of hell. A decide guidelines over every courtroom, the place they oversee the purging of a distinct sin. “Some objects are burned throughout the kong teik ritual to assist [the dead] of their passage by means of the courts of hell,” says DeBernardi.

Generally Keat and his father are requested to make paper effigies of servants and housekeepers. As soon as burned, these effigies are believed to help the lifeless with cooking, cleansing, and each day chores within the afterlife.

After a soul is purged of all their sins, they enter yin jian, an underworld crammed with mountains and caves the place souls wait to be reincarnated. Keat explains that the burning of a paper mansion ensures a departed soul’s spot on this “area of transition,” whereas burning further paper effigies ensures the lifeless “have their desires and wishes taken care of within the afterlife,” says Bernardi.

Paper effigy burning arrived in Penang within the late nineteenth century when Chinese language migrants started shifting to colonial British Malaya. On the time, each single element of paper effigies, from the tiniest decorative flower to figures’ eyes and limbs, have been totally handmade.

At present, artisans save time by reducing and pasting paper printed with patterns and human figures, changing the necessity to hand paint and craft each a part of the large, life-sized effigies. Keat and his father make and promote effigies for something the lifeless may have within the afterlife—iPhones, DVD gamers, laptop computer computer systems, luxurious automobiles, and motorbikes, amongst others.

Koh Ah Bah prepares strips of Bertam wooden. After the wooden is processed, Bah and Keat will use the strips to construct an effigy’s wood body.

Koh Ah Bah, Keat’s father, “opened his store in 1996 when his grasp, Wong Su Wing, handed away,” says Keat. Quickly after, “[He] compelled me into part-time baby labor as a result of he didn’t have sufficient manpower,” quips Keat, who started engaged on effigies when he was 10 years previous.

Regardless of his line of labor, Keat doesn’t consider in an afterlife. It’s one thing that makes him well-suited to the effigy-making enterprise. “Persons are not on this profession,” he says. “It’s funeral work, so a lot of the Chinese language are pantang,” a Malay phrase meaning, on this context, superstitious of loss of life. “It’s taboo for them.” However the work has by no means bothered Keat, who’s Malaysian Chinese language himself.

Since he was 27, Keat has additionally bought coffins and labored as a mortician to faucet extra extensively into the earthly enterprise ofdeath. “I’ve been dressing and making use of make-up to lifeless our bodies for years,” he says. “I’m actual loss of life metallic.”

This small papier-mâché figurine is Han Xiangzi, a well-liked deity within the Taoist pantheon. As soon as a mortal man, Han Xiangzi turned enlightened and rose into the sky to affix different Taoist gods.

Consumers from Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan discover Keat’s enterprise on Fb commissioning him and his father to make all kinds of customized items. In September 2022, he bought his largest piece up to now—a 15-foot tall statue of the Chinese language king of hell, Tai Su Yeah, to burn throughout one coastal Malaysian city’s Hungry Ghost Competition.

Whereas the large determine took him a few week to finish, Keat can churn out extra normal items in a few hours. When pressed for time, he can put together the entire inside body of a regular seven-foot-tall papier-mâché mansion in 45 minutes. “It’s a system, like taking part in the blues,” he says. “You get higher at it with time.”

Each paper effigy begins with a wood body made out of Bertam, a versatile tropical wooden. Keat strips the wooden’s bark into 14-foot-long bands, throwing away the pulp. He then slices, bends, and assembles the bands right into a wood body, following a template. Effigy artisans have handed down these templates for generations. They save treasured time, however “generally we alter them as a result of [past artisans] made issues too difficult for no purpose,” says Keat.

Keat makes use of his fingers to smear glue onto the wood scaffolding of a paper mansion. As soon as he’s finished developing the wood body, he’ll cowl the effigy with coloured paper after which start adorning the effigy.

The body’s junctions are tied with paper after which caught along with a glue constituted of flour, baking soda, and a congealing agent. It’s a fragile course of. “If the Bertam wooden is simply too darkish, it’s spoiled and unusable. It can break once we bend it to make spherical shapes,” says Keat.

The ensuing wood frames are then coated with colourful paper. Generally paper printed with patterns or human figures is minimize and pasted onto the effigies so as to add further ornament.

The toughest a part of the job, says Keat, is constructing massive objects from scratch with no template, equivalent to motorbikes or automobiles. “We’re the one store on Penang Island that may nonetheless do life-sized automotive fashions,” he says. “We want making BMWs and Mercedes as a result of we all know the template, so we persuade the shoppers to purchase these luxurious automobiles as a result of, we are saying, their lifeless family deserve higher.”

Keat and his father, Koh Ah Bah (proven within the background right here), run the one effigy studio on Penang Island that may make paper replicas of luxurious automobiles—full with their very own drivers.

Nevertheless, Keat’s present focus isn’t making paper effigies that go up in flames. 5 years in the past, he began crafting everlasting papier-mâché figures used to embellish Taoist and Buddhist altars and temples. Keat pulls out a 16-inch-tall mannequin of a Chinese language god, who seems to be like he stepped proper off a loss of life metallic album cowl. The long-haired, dark-skinned, fierce-looking deity is Fa Zhu Gong. As soon as a mortal man, Fa Zhu Gong at all times assisted these in want; Now as a god, he’s commemorated for his good deeds and skill to exorcise demons. Keat bought his papier-mâché Fa Zhu Gong to a Singaporean businessman, fetching 3800 Malaysian ringgit, round $850—the equal of a white-collar wage in Malaysia.

Branching out is a should for Keat as among the overseas cities the place he sells his collectible figurines, like Taipei, are beginning to impose bans on open-air burning to fight air pollution. Funerary traditions round kong teik have additionally begun to alter. “The craft of creating paper effigies is fading away because the youthful technology depends extra on prayers and chants by ritual specialists quite than burning paper effigies at funerals,” says ethnomusicologist Tan Sooi Beng of Penang’s College of Science Malaysia, who advocates for conventional Malaysian arts.

Keat will typically create further paper figures with no template, equivalent to this snarling, inexperienced character.

However Keat’s not anxious. “Funeral effigies will exist so long as there are Chinese language folks,” he says. “This custom goes locations. My father’s grasp’s figures are within the Peranakan Museum in Penang, and his personal work reached the archives of the British Museum.”

As for Keat, work is busy. Along with taking part in guitar together with his band Coma, he churns out dozens of effigies each month. On this enterprise, “there are not any day offs,” he says. “Individuals die day by day, even on weekends.”