Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Ah Ban Paper Oblation Workshop

Mrs. Ah Ban works on the paper figures
It was through a very unassuming narrow alley past a Trek bike shop that I experienced one of my biggest highlights of my time in Penang. A dog keeping guard at the shed announced our presence, but a young woman named Ean greeted us in English. She welcomed us to come inside the large shed where her father Mr. Loh An Ban, mother, brother, and another family member all worked to create paper oblations. (According to the brochure Ean gave us, the shop actually employs 8 workers).

For over 40 years, Mr. Loh An Ban has been making paper oblations for the Chinese community in the area. Daughter Ean explained that the Chinese believe that the spirit of the dead person needs a place to dwell and enjoy the comforts of life. In Chinese custom, miniature replicas of the home, servants, worldly possessions (i.e. TV, car, cell phones) are burned for the newly deceased to accompany them to the afterlife. Such oblations are only made for those who had been married. If a person couldn't afford an oblation at the time of death, the family would wait until another member died, at which time a figure for that person would be included as well. The paper oblations are typically burned at home or at a temple, but a fire department must be present at the ceremony.

Her family is one of a few that still make these oblations in Penang. The number of craftsmen in China is rapidly decreasing as well.  Special figures are made at the time of the Ghost Festival which is usually held around August. The large paper effigies of Chinese gods are also made to commemorate deities' birthdays. Ean has incorporated the skills learned from her father (it takes over 10 years to learn all the parts of this craft) and combined it with her graphic design degree training to create contemporary items for others such as Christmas trees.   

Ean's brother forms the main structure, attaching the wood with strips of strong rice paper and flour-based homemade glue
 Her family had all been working for a couple of hours on this particular oblation for a man who had just died. They anticipated finishing it later in the afternoon and encouraged us to return then. More complex ones might take several days to complete.
Mrs. Ah Ban attaches thin paper with flour-based homemade glue

Beautiful patterned paper

Ean, father Loh An Ban, and mother

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