Malaysian red paper-cutting artist keen to preserve the traditional art form

What started as a yearly Chinese New Year tradition has evolved into an exploration of the art of paper cutting.

Eten Teo recalled being encouraged to make Lunar New Year decorations by his family when he was in his teens.

“We printed the words on plain paper and then cut the words out along the sides of the wordings on red paper. We did not have any insight into the art of paper-cutting, but were just doing it purely for New Year decorations, ” recalled Teo, 31, whose hometown is in Tangkak, Johor.

The practice soon became an annual family tradition and Teo started to explore the art and the different forms of paper-cutting.

“From purely cutting words and emulating other people’s work, I started to come up with my own original creations and techniques. It was a process of much discovery and gave me a better understanding of the traditional art, ” added the self-taught artist.

The cuts may seem simple, but the production is time-consuming, says Teo.Friends and family soon had high praise for his work, fuelling his confidence and work satisfaction in an art form that continues to fascinate him.

“It gives me a sense of achievement and gratification to witness the artworks transforming from a form that is less than perfect in the early days, to something that exceeds my imagination, ” said Teo, who holds a fulltime job in a logistics company.

From buildings to portraits, landscapes to animal figures, Teo’s designs span across various subjects. But architecture is what intrigues him most.

“My personal preference is to present the structure of a building through paper-cutting, especially when our country has buildings that are filled with different features, which make the artwork emerge in a delightful way.

“But due to the number of details present in the work, it would need more time and concentration than works on portraits or animal forms. Due to this, it makes me develop this love-hate feeling when I immerse myself in such projects!” admitted Teo, whose work can be seen on Instagram (@redcutpapercutting).

S.H.E. by Teo. Portraits are challenging because of the need to capture and present the characteristics of the people, says Teo.S.H.E. by Teo. Portraits are challenging because of the need to capture and present the characteristics of the people, says Teo.

Portraits are also challenging, said Teo, who holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Graphic Design and Multimedia.

“To call it a job well done, I need to capture and present the characteristic of the person in the work, and that’s not as easy as it seems.”

Teo usually starts working on a piece after coming up with a theme. From there, he would start pairing it with other features.

“For example, if I want to do a project on the Petronas Twin Towers, I will decide the other suitable features, such as the hibiscus, then reflect on the design and shapes. I would then do a draft using software or drawings on paper, and sometimes refer to books on traditional paper-cutting, ” he said, adding that there are many traditional patterns which never fail to inspire him.

The Petronas Twin Towers.The Petronas Twin Towers.

Appreciating a unique art form

Chinese paper-cutting originated from the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD).

The Chinese first used these intricately patterned artworks during festivals to decorate gates and windows.

The delicate cut-outs always symbolise luck, good fortune and happiness.

In 2009, Chinese paper-cutting joined Unesco’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Over the years, it has evolved into various techniques and forms, including pop-ups, silhouettes and 3D works. In 2019, in China’s Shaanxi Province, paper-cutting master Yang Caixia made headlines when she designed delicate gowns made of red paper.Teo said paper-cutting as a hollowed art form that requires precision in detailing, linking of fine lines while ensuring the paper remains intact.

“The cuts may seem simple, but the production is time consuming, ” he said.

The Teo Chew Association Building in Muar, Johor.The Teo Chew Association Building in Muar, Johor.

To date, Teo’s most complicated piece is one entitled “The Malay Wedding” measuring 62cm by 41cm. It took him two weeks to complete the work, the longest he has even worked on a project.

“The piece shows fine details of buildings in a Malay kampung and 30 guests and participants, which needed very delicate and sophisticated work, ” explained Teo, who currently lives in Kajang, Selangor.

As a red paper-cutting artist, Teo feels strongly about ensuring that the art form continues to transform and progress so that it can be preserved.

“Malaysians may not have in-depth knowledge about paper-cutting as it is a niche industry, and there’s also a lack of exposure.

“But in the past few years, I have seen youngsters and people from different races with a growing interest in it.

“They might start with a simple work, but it brings them much happiness and excitement when they finish their first project, ” said Teo, who has held workshops on the art form.

“But these experiences are crucial, and I do my part as a paper-cutting artist by exposing more people to the art.”

As a whole, Teo is keen to create more artwork with unique Malaysian elements while preserving the essence of the traditional Chinese art form.

“We may always see that the traditional art of red paper-cutting is from China, but my wish is that we will come across more and more artwork with unique Malaysian features, ” he concluded.