Hanging in the balance

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 September, 2011, 12:00am


Mrs Ho is 72 and her life has always been entwined with the little roadside stall that sells traditional weighing scales in Sham Shui Po.

She remembers the neighbourhood in the old days, with the bustling wet market and the fishermen hauling in fresh fish from the nearby harbour.

She remembers her late father, a scales maker, as he would train another batch of pupils. He'd always emphasise the crucial importance of getting the stick just right. Whether it had been taken from an elephant tusk or the hind bone of a calf, the stick had to be scraped and polished to the perfect size - depending on whether the scales were to be used for fish, or chicken, or gold, or Chinese medicine. Then it had to be meticulously measured, the measurements etched in and coloured with coal.

So much has changed. The market and pier have been replaced by high-rises. Her old customers have switched to electronic scales. People devalued handmade things as products swarmed in from massive factories.

'I think I am one of the last [scales makers] in Hong Kong,' she says.

Industries, festivals and handmade objects all tell stories of people. But in money-driven Hong Kong, with its high standards of living and busy lifestyle, many stories have gotten lost.

What's more, the colonial legacy has left many Hongkongers unaware of the rich cultural heritage and history the city possesses. Globalisation may yet cost Hong Kong more of its unique heritage.

This year, four local traditional festivals gained national recognition in intangible cultural heritage. But many Hongkongers may not fully understand what intangible cultural heritage means, let alone appreciate its importance.

The word 'heritage' often evokes images of old colonial buildings and crumbling ruins. Or cultural activities like dragon-boat races and traditional arts such as Chinese opera or paper lanterns.

Yet, cultural heritage is not an activity, nor is it an object - it's the people and communities behind them. Experts warn that if Hong Kong focuses only on preserving events and things without trying to retain the communities in which these traditions reside, the city will lose much that is precious.

'Whether they are skills, knowledge or activities, they are all meaningful if they mean something to people,' Professor Liu Tik-sang, of the University of Science and Technology, said. Liu is involved with a government project in researching and compiling a list of intangible cultural heritage in the city.

'To reduce culturally important and community-grounded traditions into merely a culture industry will be a big mistake - it will destroy these traditions.'

Teresa Tao Chang-hung, assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong with a specialty in culture and tourism, clarified what culture was: 'It's not something stagnant. Culture and tradition change with the times and the people.'

Culture would change and tradition would be adapted to modern-day living, Tao said, and should be allowed to evolve as needed. The needs of a community have to be heard, and should be given the means to survive in society, through government funding and support.

One such changing industry is the trade in precious jade.

'Jade has a long history in Hong Kong and is of utmost significance to the Chinese,' said Tang Kam-hung, chairman of the Hong Kong Jade Association.

Jade was first imported from Myanmar, the source of most of our jade, about 100 years ago, but it didn't become a flourishing trade until the 1950s. Mainland China had barred the import of jade then, so Hong Kong became the centre of the trade, attracting talented craftsmen and buyers from Chinese communities all over Asia.

Hong Kong jade ornaments were soon known for good quality and exquisite craftsmanship. Until 1997, 90 per cent of jade ornaments sold around the world were crafted in Hong Kong, according to Tang.

The jade trade built up a community of merchants, experts and craftsmen that congregated around the Canton Road area for more than 50 years. Master craftsmen took in pupils. Traders established ties with local stores and workshops. Tang still remembers the cheerful din of jade merchants and hawkers touting their wares in stores and markets along Canton Road, as thousands milled in and out in search of good purchases.

'We all knew one another - there were not a lot of secrets,' he recalled.

A unique system of understanding the trade developed. Apart from the colour and texture, learning how to differentiate the quality of jade pieces took time and experience, Tang said.

'You have to touch it more, look at it more. Do it for a year, two years, five years and more,' he said. 'That's why it takes time to be trained in the trade - whether it's the craftsmanship or just the knowledge. And it takes the time that many younger people are not willing to give.'

Nowadays, it was hard for jade masters to find pupils, he said. Many masters have moved back to the mainland, where more people are willing to spend the time and effort to learn the mysteries of the trade.

Another business struggling to survive is the wood-carving industry.

The Kwok family have been in the wood-carving trade for five generations. Kwok Kin-kwan, 26, who represents the fifth generation, started learning the skills in carving intricate floral and dragon-phoenix designs onto wood just a year ago.

The once high-earning trade has been in danger of disappearing since cheaper mass-produced substitutes came into the market.

'It normally takes eight to 10 days to make a regular mid-sized wooden statue. But to be paid as a wood-carving master for the artworks would take at least eight years of training,' said Kwok Yat-tin, the young Kwok's father. Kwok Yat-tin's older brother specialises in carving Chinese characters.

He said appreciation of handmade things had waned so much that it was hard for those in the industry to make a living and to retain their skills. The most intricate types of carvings - relief scenes of trees, flowers or birds that are carved through the piece of wood - could take weeks or even months to accomplish, and no one today would be willing to pay for such expensive craftsmanship, Kwok said.

Ultimately, Liu said, what traditions needed was space outside the commercial realm to develop.

Both the wood-carving and jade industries were forced out by cheap, mass-produced goods, a lack of successors and a loss of appreciation for handmade items. Liu said the government should propose steps to retain and support the craftsmen.

'Whether [the heritage lies in] religious festivals or crafts, it needs support in facing the globalised world. It also needs promotion and education,' he said. 'We need to educate our next generations to appreciate these things, and to be proud of it.'

'[Tradition and culture] will always be changing,' Tao added. 'While some [industries] will inevitably face extinction, most would stand a chance if given room - a place to set up shop, funds to keep on practising their skills, education that will encourage interested young people to join in.'