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How a Hong Kong flower plaque maker is bringing the craft to the West

When Choi Wing-kei was in primary school, he would often help his father, a flower plaque maker, at the shop. Choi started small, stapling sheets of metallic paper together to make flowers.

Now, almost three decades later, he has his own workshop, and his services have been sought as far afield as Europe and the United States.

Fa paai, or flower plaques, have traditionally been used to celebrate weddings and festivals, especially in rural Hong Kong. Nowadays people use them on other occasions as well, such as store openings, carnivals or simply for advertising purposes, Choi says.

The frame is made by tying lengths of bamboo together and laying newspaper and wire mesh on it, and can be used for almost a decade. Workers only have to replace the characters and flowers on the top layer each time.

Though he has mastered the craft, Choi is always looking to improve the designs of his creations, such as replacing tungsten lights with LED ones, using decorations made with glass fibre rather than plastic and drawing more modern designs to suit the taste of urban dwellers.

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The 41-year-old carefully monitors the production process, from taking orders to setting up the plaques on site. He also keeps an eye on the details: the space between each character should be perfectly even, and if the wire is wrapped around the sticks they must not overlap.

Noticing a decline in the quality of paint and metallic paper, whose colours fade within days, Choi is constantly on the hunt for better materials. “I always have to go directly to the factories and double check the materials before importing them. It’s a lot of travelling but it’s the only way,” he says.

When it comes to the decorations in the form of peacocks, dragons and other Chinese mythical beasts that accompany the flower plaques, Choi sticks to tradition. “Other companies either use the same design for every dragon or simply print the creatures out on banner cloth. But we paint each one by hand. So some are prettier than others, depending on the skills and mood of the sifu. But at least each one is unique,” says Choi.

And his efforts have paid off. In 2014, Choi and his team were invited by the Smithsonian Centre for Folklife and Cultural Heritage to build a 12-metre-tall flower plaque in the US Capitol building in Washington.

“It was a huge flower plaque that stood almost like the wall of a city,” says Choi. “Their engineer [was initially concerned about] how the structure would stand by itself. After we built the basic bamboo structure, he gave us the thumbs-up. When we finished, he climbed on the structure and tried to shake it, but it would not budge. He was so impressed.”

More recently, in July this year, Choi was invited to France to build a flower plaque for the Bordeaux Wine Festival.

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Though business is booming, Choi’s workshop in Yuen Long has only six full-time employees, so the team often has to work long hours and the young guardian of the traditional art already foresees a looming threat. “No one wants to enter the industry even though the pay is quite okay. It’s too hard.”

In the meantime, however, Choi will continue doing what he can to make their art known.