If it weren’t for the journey through an industrial building required to reach it, Terra House could fool visitors into thinking they’d travelled back in time to the study of some eccentric professor in 19th-century Europe. The small Kwai Fong workshop is packed with curios, including amber bottles, a glass phrenological head, dried plants and boxes upon boxes of insects behind glass.
Butterflies are Morly Tse’s speciality, but amid the framed and domed displays of glittering lepidoptera there are also cicadas and beetles great and small. Tse, the 26-year-old proprietress, taxidermist and artist behind Terra House, trained on mammals in the UK before turning her talents to the insect world.
Tse’s is an unusual craft in Hong Kong, where no other businesses offer animal or insect taxidermy and there are few public collectors. However, she has found her niche on Instagram, where customers, mostly based in Hong Kong, explore her designs before visiting her workshop for a private consultation.
In entomology, the preservation of insects for long-term collection and display is more accurately called “pinning” or “mounting”. The recently deceased butterflies Tse receives in the post arrive with their wings folded and protected with paper. She begins a painstaking process of first sanitising and rehydrating them for a week, before pinning them flat with special entomological pins, taking care to ensure their wings are symmetrical. Then comes another week of rest, so the specimen can dry out once more. After that, they are ready to be arranged into display boxes or used in decorative sculptures under glass cloches.
While taxidermy has enjoyed a resurgence in the West over the past decade, propelled by social media, Asia has yet to discover the appeal of having dead creatures as decoration in the home. Hong Kong’s humid, rot-accelerating climate, not to mention potent superstitions around death, all but ensure even the rich aren’t filling their homes with stuffed bears or mounted stag heads.
Then there’s the yuck factor: for many, their first instinct when spotting an insect is to stamp, scream, spray or swat. In Hong Kong, bugs are thought of as little more than pests to be expelled and kept away from homes and urban areas at all costs. Tse has seen initially enthusiastic customers balk as soon as they enter her workshop, while she herself was uneasy around bugs before she began learning to pin.