Expertise in antique restoration may wane as city's masters retire

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 June, 2008, 12:00am

The craftsmanship of Chinese antique furniture restoration that helped put Hong Kong on the world map as one of the most important spots for the trade is set to fade when the last generation of masters retires in about 10 years.

It is estimated only about 20 masters are active in restoring pieces from the Ming and Qing dynasties and the youngest are already in their 50s.

And despite the boom in the trade of such furniture, they say that even if they were willing to pass on the skills to the next generation, young people lack the patience to spend up to a year fixing one piece of furniture.

'It is too much hard work for young people, especially when they want to make quick money. It is not much of a career either,' Lo Wai-wing, 64, who has been making and restoring furniture since he dropped out of school in 1962, said.

'People prefer to do interior decor because it's much quicker money than restoring antique furniture,' said Ho Hung-yu, who started making furniture 40 years ago when he was 12 and now runs his own gallery, Ho Cheung Antique Furniture.

'It's possible that the skills of [furniture restoration] will fade out. It's too difficult to find a young person who is interested in this and has the patience and talent required.'

Dressed in a sweatshirt and shorts at a workshop without air conditioning filled with thousands of pieces of wood, Mr Lo said the work was difficult and required a lot of patience. 'If there are broken edges, I have to find a piece of wood that matches the pattern and colour of the wood of the original piece of furniture.'

Leung Sun-cheung, 51, among the youngest of the restorers, agreed that finding the right piece of wood could take a lot of time. A throne made for an emperor or official could take up to four months; a canopy bed would need a year.

Both Mr Lo and Mr Leung, who have been working together for more than 20 years, felt they were making pieces of art and preserving history.

'By looking at the architecture and the craftsmanship of a piece, we can tell in which period the furniture was made, and we are always amazed at how people in the past produced such beautiful furniture,' Mr Leung said. 'They didn't have the equipment that we have today.'

In the Ming dynasty, even the iron nails were handmade, he said. In those days the materials used were of a much higher quality and the design had a lot more character, Mr Lo said. 'Furniture made with machines these days is not as durable.'

Andy Hei Kao-chiang, who inherited from his father the workshop Mr Lo and Mr Leung have been working in, said the two men had gone through different stages in their approaches to antique restorations.

'In the past there wasn't much sense of preserving furniture. People might drill a hole and put a screw through the aged wood in order to 'fix' a piece.

'They would also scrub the surface to make it smooth. But we don't do this any more. A bit of imperfection gives the furniture an identity.'

Mr Hei said that after this generation of masters retired, the restoration business in the city might decline or even die. 'There is nothing we can do because this is just a natural evolution of an economy.'


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