Retired clerk makes lanterns from scratch every year for grandchildren and great-grandchildren

With his self-taught skills, 88-year-old Lim Choon Kiang has been making lanterns for his family for the past 30 years

On Thursday, about 20 of Mr Lim Choon Kiang's family members will gather for dinner to celebrate the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival. The 88-year-old has five children, 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, though not all of them can attend.

After dinner, which will be held at Mr Lim's daughter-in-law's home in Upper Paya Lebar, all those present will take a stroll around the neighbourhood. It will be quite an impressive-looking group, as the children - aged seven months to 11 years - will all be carrying pretty lanterns.

Children bearing colourful lanterns on the streets is not a rare sight during the festival, but the difference is that, in this family, all the cellophane-and-wire creations are handmade by Mr Lim.

The retired clerk has been making lanterns for his grandchildren and great-grandchildren for the past 30 years.

Some are inspired by cartoon characters such as Hello Kitty and Nemo from the 2003 film Finding Nemo. Others come in shapes like a car, an aeroplane and - in a nod to the current wildly popular game Pokemon Go - a Pokeball.

He has also been inspired by the two giant pandas at the River Safari - Kai Kai and Jia Jia. The lantern he made has an image of a panda on each side and their names written in Chinese calligraphy on the other sides. He created it shortly after the pandas arrived in Singapore in 2012.

His lantern-making skills are self-taught. "I sometimes get inspiration from looking at lanterns in my neighbourhood," he says. "But I get inspiration everywhere - from TV, newspapers, anything really."

On a large living room table in his four-room HDB flat in Farrer Park are his tools - glue, tape, string, a penknife, a pair of scissors and a small chopper - which he uses to cut pieces of bamboo into strips.

The lanterns are made mainly using scrap or recycled material. The skeleton is either made from bamboo - which he obtains from discarded vegetable baskets from a nearby market - or from metal wires, which he gets from a relative who works in a recycling business.

After making the structure, he glues colourful cellophane pieces onto it.

Ever the perfectionist, he also carefully trims uneven edges and tidies them with more glue and tape.


Charlotte Lim-Zagrodnik, 2, holding a lantern made by her great-grandfather, Mr Lim Choon Kiang. Around them are more of his lanterns. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

He usually starts making lanterns a few weeks before the Mid-Autumn Festival every year and can make up to 25 a year. On average, each lantern takes two or three days to make. The easiest are those with a simple cuboid shape. The most difficult? The curved noses of aeroplanes and the neck of a deer.

While his lanterns come in various shapes, they all follow some basic principles. He says in Mandarin: "I make sure that when carried with a stick, the front and back of each lantern are evenly balanced. If not, the lantern will be lopsided."

The top of each lantern must also be uncovered, so users can place and light a candle and the heat from it can escape. "If you cover the top, your lantern will catch fire," he says.

In Chinese culture, people traditionally light lanterns during the Mid-Autumn Festival to accentuate the brightness of the full moon.

Mr Lim says: "Lanterns are beautiful and I hope to preserve this part of Chinese culture."

His granddaughter, freelance music teacher Tan Yi En, 27, recalls getting a Nemo lantern, shaped like the famous clownfish from the Pixar film, in primary school.

"Everybody wanted to hold it. And since there was only one, we had to share it. Having our own handmade lanterns made every Mid-Autumn Festival much more memorable and fun."

See how Mr Lim Choon Kiang makes his lanterns at http://str.sg/4pur

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 11, 2016, with the headline 'Grandpa, the lantern-maker'. Print Edition | Subscribe