Figurines of various
materials and forms of construction were used as offerings at Chinese religious
festivals. Some of these were ‘Fishmen’. These last formed part of a diorama,
where scenes from Chinese mythology and folklore were depicted. Scenes depicting ‘Fishmen’ appeared in the 16th century classic ‘Monkey’, by Wu Ch’êng-ên. They were the soldiers
and guardians of the ‘King of the Oceans’. The lantern decoration and painting chapter on this website show additional usage of these fishmen)
Straw is wrapped around a dry bamboo
stick, formed into shape and covered with a plaster of paris or other finish.
They are painted and varnished into a number of different
creatures of the sea. Their body clearly fish, mollusc, crustacean or frog, they have human arms, legs and faces, the latter depicting a particular character. The photographs
with this collection were taken in 1980 and the photographer gave the fishmen their weapons. These weapons came from a paper shop but I cannot vouch if those in the hands
of the fishmen actually belong to the character they portray.
Several fishmen are painted in front
only. The reverse shows the unpainted plaster of paris and at times even the
straw body. Those examples were pasted onto a paper or
other surface, as the need dictated, to form part of a mythological scene. Most are painted three-dimensionally.
I was told that until the late 1950s
yearly competitions among the paper shops were held at Beach Road in Singapore.
The likelihood is that some of these fishmen were
used at such a competition. (ref. Mr. Daniel Lee.)At these competitions the paper shops showed their best wares to impress their clientele. Temple officials in search
of the best items might favour a winning paper shop with patronage from such temples for the coming year. An early day’s Trade Fair.
Because of their fragility, some
of the fishmen have broken limbs and some have parts missing or paint deteriorating.
Despite that and for academic purposes, I decided
to leave these in the collection rather than remove them, with what might have been an important character Several of the fishmen carry studio labels, showing their Chinese origin
Papier Maché Deities