Paper at Its Most Perfect

Paper Sculptor Hung Hsinfu

2019 / July

Lee Shan Wei /photos courtesy of Fufong Cultures Publishing Ltd. /tr. by Phil Newell

He became fascinated with paper at four years of age because of a paper airplane. Now, nearly half a century later, he has received countless patents for his innovative paper art. He has continually refined his work, seeking the highest achievements in paper art. Hung Hsinfu has integrated invention into his life, with helping others as his main motivation. He selflessly shares his creative ideas, and he uses games to activate people’s powers of observation, in order to achieve the goal of self-directed learning. Named one of “Taiwan’s Ten Outstanding Young Persons” in 2003, he achieved his wish to “show filial piety by honoring his family’s name.” Declaring himself to be an “instrument of society” and an “eternal cultural volunteer,” he has also repaid the land that raised him with honor and glory, creating a Taiwan legend through paper art.


A paper airplane

“I have been playful ever since I was small, but I never expected that playing around would result in anything remarkable.” During his childhood half a century ago, toys sold in stores were unattainable luxury items for Hung. “The easiest thing to get was calendar paper, which I folded into paper airplanes.” Hung continually practiced and made improvements. His little planes didn’t just have to fly, they had to fly high and far.

Walking into his crowded workshop, Hung sits down and immediately takes out a square piece of colored paper. He skillfully twists and connects the die-cut edges, and in an instant a pink paper mouse appears. Hung then takes a small marble out of the pocket of what he calls his “battle dress” and puts it into the belly of the paper mouse. Like magic the previously stationary mouse begins to run rapidly as the flat board beneath it sways. News of these simple yet fun toys spread by word of mouth, and in three years he sold 100,000 of them.

“The patent for this innovation in fact was the result of a little trick born out of necessity.” When Hung first went into business he was living hand to mouth, and friends took turns in inviting him over for meals. Because he could not afford to bring gifts, he had to rack his brains to amuse their children. He used a technique employing the flexibility and shapeability of folded paper to make a flat piece of paper three-dimensional, and then applied principles based on the laws of physics to make it move, transforming it from static to dynamic.

In his display case, filled with beautiful things, one can see everywhere the results of Hung ­Hsinfu’s endeavors. There is a lively cartoon-style monkey with outstretched arms that, when operated with the aid of a string, can turn forward and backward somersaults over and under a bar. Pointing at another item, he says: “I put a lot of thought into this lamb.” When placed on an inclined surface, the happy-looking lamb will walk toward you, swaying back and forth. His ability to make things move without batteries shows how Hung integrates knowledge into daily life through play.

A fixed ambition

“My grandfather Hung Wan-mei ran a candle business, and was said to have once been the richest man on Di­hua Street.” But the perceptive old gentleman preferred to use his money to help the poor rather than pamper his children and grandchildren. “Each of the last three genera­tions of my family has made their own way from scratch, and I’m teaching my children that they should do so too.” Hung began doing part-time work from when he was a young child. “A man has to have a sense of responsibility. First you have to be able to support yourself, next you have to be able to support your parents, and only then can you speak of getting married and having children.” Teaching by example rather than words, Hung and his wife are of one mind in making filial piety a priority, emphasizing the family, and promoting a spirit of loyalty, self-sacrifice, and trust­worthiness. “I believe these traditional core values are the most important cornerstones in life.”

Hung had outstanding grades in school from when he was small, but when he took the high-school entrance exam he deliberately scored below the marks needed to get into a top high school, because he wanted to learn a skill as quickly as possible. He then entered a five-year junior college (today’s Shih Hsin University), aiming to start his own business after graduation. “I promised my father that I would definitely get a job offer before I graduated, and only then did he permit me to enroll in the junior college.” While in school, Hung used his skill at paper folding to become an instructor for hobby clubs. He gathered together a group of likeminded classmates, and got to know benefactors and supporters such as teachers and the director of the ­Hsiao Hsi Yuan Puppet Theater.

“Don’t assume that playing is a bad thing. So long as you’re sure of your direction, you can have a beauti­ful life through play.” In his five years of playing at Shih Hsin, Hung learned how to approach tasks and get things done, how to express himself, and leadership. “In fact I built up my business as I studied.” Through one learning experience after another, the once shy and stuttering Hung became a talkative paper-art magician. Before graduating he won a bronze medal in a national card design competition, produced popup cards, and published a collection of his works from over the years, thereby fulfilling his promise to his father.

No end to studying

“I’m grateful that I had so many renowned teachers to guide me,” says Hung, to whom they were like a walking cane in a deep valley or a support on a steep precipice. “It is the natural vocation of a teacher to become a stepping-­stone for students.” This statement by Weng Shen-lung, known as the father of paper art in Taiwan, has become a maxim for Hung ­Hsinfu. He has always given everything he has in teaching his students.

Hung is not tall in stature, but his ambitions were higher than the sky: he wanted to become not only a professional, but a master of his craft. “Paper art is a very broad field, and there really are no limits to what you can learn.”

“What my teachers taught me was not only technique, but also the concept of treasuring one’s work, as they took this maverick and trained me by example.” The motivation for learning must come from the heart, as only then can one truly comprehend what is being taught, and go on to completely reshape oneself.

Breaking the mold

“I use my name card to get people’s attention.” When folded, this 3D paper-sculpture name card looks like a nautilus, but when opened up it becomes an upside-­down universe, a metaphor full of depth and playfulness. “This leaves a deep impression on people as soon as they see it,” says Hung, successfully creating a positive image for himself as a paper artist.

In hopes of making paper sculpting more accessible to the public and enabling it to be mass-produced, Hung thought up the idea of having shapes cut out using dies, so that anyone can assemble sculptures for themselves without the need for a specialized hobby knife. Thus people can make the Lantern Festival hand lanterns that local governments have been giving out for many years. “My first die-cut work was a wedding invitation for my sister.” Over the past 30 years he has experimented with using different dies to create products, becoming a genu­ine eyewitness to the advances in his industry.

Hung pursues perfection in his works in hopes that paper art will come to be collected, like other forms of art. “Sometimes being too realistic can be problem too.” His extremely lifelike “Hung’s paper butterfly” sparked an outcry among environmentalists. His “military weaponry” series, designed at the request of the ROC Army, required more than a year for the design of each piece.

“Don’t be limited by established frameworks.” Hung, who continually has new ideas popping into his head, is like a curious child. Whether it be building blocks, toy guns, clocks, watches, or any kind of everyday object, in his eyes each is worth studying. “I most enjoy strolling through flea markets.” He finds odd old things, which he then continually dismantles and rebuilds, and which become the basis for new creations.

A toymakers’ hall

In 2003, at the recommendation of Hsu Kuo-­liang, director of the ­Hsiao Hsi Yuan Puppet Theater, Hung was named one of Taiwan’s Ten Outstanding Young Persons. “I’m just an ordinary son of Taiwan, and it’s because I’m ordinary that my work resonates with people.” Hung, who jokes that he was always half a beat behind others in learning, had auda­cious dreams, but he has conscientiously worked one step at a time to make those dreams a reality.

“All of my success goes back to my childhood dreams.” The pop-up books he so admired as a child inspired Hung’s imagination, and the “Stunning Pop-Up Books” expo held in Tai­pei in 2012 attracted 240,000 visitors. In 2013, in the plaza outside Tai­chung City Hall, a pop-up book totaling 106 meters in length, with 148 double-page spreads—the collective creation of more than 70 art teachers—went on display, and successfully set a Guinness world record, to the cheers of the crowd.

“Using fasteners makes it possible for pop-up books to be extended without limit.” The mindset of finding inspiration in daily life and of educating while entertaining set down firm roots at this event. “I hope to make complex things simple, and bring dull formulas to life.” Hung uses mathemat­ical formulas to construct educational pop-up books, so that children can learn in a joyful way. 

“My next dream is to build a ‘toymakers’ hall.’” Hung ­Hsinfu, who found success in the midst of failure, understands deeply that if you just work hard and earnestly, without worrying about success or failure, Fate will always give you a chance. “Things you make with your hands are an extension of life.” Hung hopes that everyone can learn by doing at the “toymakers’ hall.” “The process is more important than the outcome,” he says. Linking hands and minds can produce even more possibilities, just as he himself has achieved the goal of bringing paper to its highest state of perfection.

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