The woodworkers keeping a traditional art alive in Hong Kong
Against the backdrop of fallen timber businesses, a determined band of craftsmen sparks new interest in the old ways
His hands protected by industrial gloves, Wong Hung-kuen eagerly ushers us inside the premises of his Chi Kee sawmill in Kwu Tung, Sheung Shui.
The 67-year-old deftly cuts a plank from a massive log using a storey-high band saw. "We are one of the few, if not the only, people still doing it in Hong Kong," he tells visitors.
It was a thrill to see Wong at work and tour his 10,000 sq ft sawmill, chock-a-block with assorted logs of different species, age and sizes. But just a few decades ago, timber businesses such as Chi Kee were common.
Wong and his seven siblings grew up playing in their father's lumber yard, Chi Kee Sawmill & Timber, which began operations in North Point in 1947 before relocating to Chai Wan and then its current site in 1982.
But the timber business in Hong Kong has steadily declined in recent decades as cheap, imported furniture became readily available and manufacturing shifted to mainland China. Chi Kee is a rare survivor in the twilight industry.
This has given Wong more time for his personal pursuit of sculpture and carpentry. However, he has been a lot busier of late after his business came to public attention as one of the first slated to be cleared for the controversial North East New Territories Development Plan.
Intrigued artists and design students began to seek him out as a previously untapped resource on local wood crafts, and before long he was receiving school visits and holding woodworking workshops.
While the fate of his factory is uncertain (he hopes to be relocated to a suitable site), Wong is delighted it has been drawing so much buzz.
"These are crafts and livelihoods worth preserving," he says. "We should consider a society's sustainability; putting up buildings can only take you so far.
"When I'm too busy to hold workshops and such, I share my knowledge on our Facebook page which my daughter set up for me. I talk about everything, from what different types of wood are best for to how to use different tools and the wisdom behind techniques such as mortise and tenon joints [when a cavity is cut into a piece of timber to slot in another with a protruding 'tongue']. The page has become quite popular."
However, artist Wong Tin-yan attributes the interest in Chi Kee and its owner as much to a revival in woodworking among younger Hongkongers as opposition to the government's development plan and support for small businesses.
An art graduate from Chinese University, Wong Tin-yan credits outfits such as street art collective Start From Zero and SiFu Wood Works for promoting craftsmanship and interest in woodworking, especially among young people.
Lung Man-chuen of Mr Lung's Wood Workshop is a pioneer of this movement. The 83-year-old master craftsman started running classes with help from St James' Settlement, and has since rekindled many people's appreciation of traditional wood crafts. Now, Lung's new workshop in To Kwa Wan teems with students eager to learn to make basic pieces of furniture, such as a rustic, nail-free bench. Among the latest to share their delight and knowledge about handcrafted items is Saturn Wood Workshop, started by two graduates from Baptist University.
Wong Tin-yan, too, helped fuel the renewed interest in working with wood. He started creating large-scale animal sculptures using bits of discarded wood while still at university. His school was under renovation at the time, which gave him access to plenty of discarded planks and pallets. The piles of rejects reminded him of animal skeletons, Wong says, and he has since created various installations for the Hong Kong Art Biennial, malls, museums and art galleries.
"I also make a point to host [woodworking] workshops at schools. I want students to feel for themselves especially in this materialistic world what it's like to make one's own furniture," he says. "To create is a human instinct and there's a lot of enjoyment to be had from it. Consumers are so bored by the homogeneity [of what's available] that they crave something different. They want something unique and creating your own is one of the ways. And creating is also one of the best ways to challenge society's existing or mainstream value."
For the past two years, Wong Tin-yan has also been contributing to a fortnightly column on woodworking for Ming Pao Sunday, introducing different artisanal brands and crafts people in Hong Kong and Taiwan, where there is also a surging interest in wood.
Unlike Taiwan, however, Hong Kong lacks a healthy chain of supply and demand. Woodrite, a non-profit organisation which collaborates with designers and veteran carpenters to make furniture to order using recycled wood, is the closest to achieving a sustainable business model.
"Of course, we can't go back to making everything by hand because of labour cost and efficiency, but mass-produced products from international brands are not always durable and seldom takes into consideration the tiny homes and humidity in Hong Kong," Wong Tin-yan says. "The best thing is to have choices from both worlds so that each person's preference can be met with a relevant choice. And it doesn't matter what you choose, but knowing the difference between them and why there's such a difference in the price tag is important."
Start From Zero is never short of enthusiastic people hoping to pick up a trick or two at founder Dominic Chan Yun-wai's woodwork classes, run through its S.F.Z Untechnic Department.
Inspired by US street artist Shepard Fairey, the self-taught Chan started his street art initiative in 2000. Over the years, the crew, including artist Katol Lo, has made a name for their stencil art, cool T-shirt designs and guerilla stickers.
And just as he became hooked on street art, Chan fell in love with wood after he started picking up junk wood and using it in his work.
"The most appealing thing about woodworking is that whatever I think of I can construct it immediately. It's such a versatile material and there are so many ways you can handle it," he says.
As his skills improved, Chan started receiving orders to make furniture and build installations at events such as Clockenflap and Detour creative showcase.
He has also hosted irregular workshops at Rat's Cave, the crew's now-defunct shop in Sheung Wan. These proved so popular that he has now set up a regular schedule for short- or long-term projects, making everything from a simple clothes hanger to coffee tables, mirror frames and stools in his studio space in a Ngau Tau Kok industrial building.
Chan says he would not be surprised if woodworking turned out to be a passing fad - many people just sign up for one class, viewing it as a fun gathering with friends with the bonus of a cool piece of furniture to take home. But Chan believes that is not necessarily a bad thing.
"Out of 10 people who were intrigued enough to take up street art, at least two have kept doing it. I've been at it for the past 15 years and I'm more passionate about it than ever."
As for his obsession with woodworking, Chan suspects it will remain with him for at least 10 years. It's the medium he is spending most of his time on. And he is confident once people try their hand at their own wood project, they will fall for the beauty and deeper meaning behind each item.
"After the last Clockenflap we had to dismantle this wooden house we built for the event but we saved the wood for other uses. One of those doors now hangs in my room at home. I also made a stool for myself after the event - so this stool is like it has experienced the first and second world wars before arriving in my flat. It has so many stories behind it," he says. "It's like, between a piece you made with your own hands and one bought from Ikea, which would you throw away first?"
WHERE TO HONE YOUR SKILLS
Advocates of a more laid-back lifestyle, the organisers offer a range of urban farming and craft workshops, including sessions on wood carving and turning, to produce forks, spoons and rings.
D1, 4/F, Hover Industrial Building, 26 Kwai Cheong Rd, Kwai Chung, tel: 9710 5134 or email email@example.com
Mr Lung's Wood Workshop
The well-respected Lung Man-chuen is a walking dictionary on all things wood related. Learn to make a rustic mortise and tenon bench from scratch without using a single nail. 6 Fung Yi St, To Kwa Wan, tel: 6475 5355
The founders started off offering classes on making cajon (a kind of box drum originally from Peru), but has since expanded their repertoire to include workshops on making wooden homeware.
Flat 15B, 7/F, Block C, Wah Tat Industrial Centre, 8-10 Wah Sing St, Kwai Chung, tel: 9127 1661 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Start From Zero - S.F.Z Untechnic Department
If you want to make your own piece of edgy furniture with a vintage twist, Dominic Chan is your man.
7/F Yat Sang Industrial Building, 13 Tai Yip St, Ngau Tau Kok. Inquiries: email email@example.com