Blown Sugar Artistry

11/01/2023
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    Louis To sells sugar creations at his shop in Hong Kong. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP)
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    Children enjoy the sugar figures. (Kristy Or/Honeycombers)
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    To uses different colored sugar mixtures for his candy. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP)
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    To shapes the sugar with his hands. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP)
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    To is one of the last remaining practitioners of traditional sugar blowing. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP)
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Louis To opens his shop on a remote Hong Kong island called Cheung Chau. He’s affectionately known as “Sugarman.” But his charming and delicious craft is dying out.

Sugar blowing is a 600-year-old folk art. One of the few remaining practitioners of traditional sugar blowing, To is considered the best.

To recalls watching sugar artists at work when he was a child. He asked to be taught but got nowhere, so he learned by trial and messy, painful error.

First, Sugarman heats candy ingredients to 220° Fahrenheit. They form a thick syrup. He pulls and cuts the molten substance into colorful figures.

Sugarman shapes the candy with bare hands. He’s proud of the skill—even if he’s had plenty of burns in his years of sugar sculpting.

Many of To’s designs involve blowing sugar through a thin tube or straw. He inserts the instrument into the sugar ball and blows slowly and evenly. The softened sugar expands like bubblegum.

“You shape the candy while you are blowing into it,” he says.

To calls temperature “the most difficult thing about sugar sculpture.” Next to that is moldability. “You can’t wait because it’s too hot [to handle],” To says. “If it cools down, it doesn’t work.”

Sugarman creates flowers and creatures, including dragons, horses, and qilins (CHEE-lins). Those are fantastical horned beasts of Chinese folklore.

To uses isomalt, a sugar alcohol, instead of sucrose and maltose. That sugar substitute doesn’t cause tooth decay. People with diabetes can use it. He later found it made his candies glossier and humidity resistant.

Tourists and locals alike seek out Sugarman’s shop to observe him at work.

“My kids don’t get to see this craft, so I came over to let them experience it,” says local Alice Wong.

Humans are “sub-creators,” made in God’s image with freedom to create from the resources our Creator provides. How blessed that we might create loveliness that sparks happiness in others!

History assistant professor Au Chi Kin researches folk traditions. He says blown sugar “reflects the history [of Hong Kong].” Kin fears the sweet memory of sugar art shared among Hong Kongers could fade away. Indeed, To knew of only two other sugar blowers in all of Hong Kong when he spoke with writer Kristy Or in 2021.

To’s blown sugar candies look too pretty to gobble. But Sugarman wants people to partake. “I very much encourage audiences to eat,” he told Or. “They get to physically experience the art. It enters their bloodstream, their DNA, and it becomes ingrained in their memories. That to me is perfection.”

Why? Simple joys can sometimes provide a means for generating income while preserving traditions and delivering happiness to others.

For more about candy, see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl in our Recommended Reading. 

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