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Lantern Artist | Hsiao Tsai-kan

  • Date:2024-01-19
Lantern Artist | Hsiao Tsai-kan

Chinese Name: 蕭在淦

Born: 1926

Place of Birth: Hsinchu City (Northern Taiwan)


Did You Know?

On the path to becoming a lantern artist, Hsiao Tsai-kan has always felt the protection of Cheng Huang Ye (the City God). One year, he fell seriously ill and couldn’t recover for a long time. One night, he had a dream where an elderly man gave him a peace talisman and a plate of shrimp to eat. When he woke up the next day, he asked his family to buy shrimp at the market. After eating the shrimp for a few days, miraculously, he recovered from his illness. This experience reinforced his belief that he was under the protection of Cheng Huang Ye. Hsiao has since been committed to making a lantern as an offering to the City God’s temple every year.



Hsiao Tsai-kan was born in 1926 in Hsinchu City, Taiwan. From a young age, he enjoyed working with various toys and craft items. He became interested in lantern making when he saw elderly neighbors crafting lanterns near his childhood home. His father was a traditional Beiguan (北管) music teacher and skilled in painting, which might have been where Hsiao inherited his talent from. With a special keenness for images, Hsiao was able to create lanterns without needing to draw actual sketches. He would construct the lantern’s frame, outline the overall shape, attach light bulbs and wires to the main structure, and finally, affix paper or fabric to complete the lantern.


As times changed, handcrafted lantern making couldn’t sustain a livelihood. After getting married and starting a family, Hsiao Tsai-kan operated a general merchandise store to make a living. It seemed like his passion for hands-on crafts was fading away. However, he was once again drawn into the world of traditional craftsmanship when a friend asked him to make a lantern for a special occasion.


Since 1932, the Hsinchu City God (Cheng Huang) Temple Lantern Competition has been an annual local celebration in the region. It is the longest-standing lantern competition in Taiwan’s history and has cultivated many lantern artists. In the 1980s, Hsiao Tsai-kan began receiving requests from other masters to create lanterns. He achieved remarkable success and recognition, and starting from 1990, he began registering for competitions under his own name. Hsiao’s dedication to lantern making, combined with his creative genius, brought him great success. He won the first prize for three consecutive years from 1991 to 1993, earning him the honor of receiving a replica of the “Protector of the Golden Gate” plaque from the Cheng Huang Temple—a recognition only bestowed after three consecutive victories. In 1996, he won first place in the Social Category at the Taipei City Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall Lantern Festival competition. Since then, he has been invited to create large traditional lanterns, and his reputation has continued to grow. His works have even been exhibited at lantern festivals abroad.


For over 80 years, Hsiao Tsai-kan has continuously honed his skills and creativity. He has a particular fondness for creating lanterns in the shapes of dragons, phoenixes, tigers, peacocks, and qilins (mythical creatures similar to giraffes), which he considers to be especially beautiful. He believes that crafting art pieces like these, even though they are inspired by creatures he has never seen, will bring good fortune and blessings to people. In addition to traditional symbols and creatures, Hsiao also uses his lanterns to convey social stories and political messages, making his lanterns a medium for storytelling and cultural expression.

 

For Hsiao, lantern crafting is a form of traditional craftsmanship, and the finished lanterns are not merely for festive occasions during the Lunar New Year. Each lantern that takes shape in the hands of the master is, in fact, a work of art rich in traditional techniques and aesthetics unique to lantern crafting. At the same time, these lanterns also represent the changing times. In recent years, Hsiao has served as a teaching instructor in lantern workshops, guiding participants to experience the joy of making lanterns firsthand. He encourages the younger generation who are interested in lantern crafting to create their own lanterns and participate in competitions, hoping to pass down the lantern crafting skills from generation to generation.