Chairmen of the board - Hong Kong's last few chopping block craftsmen toil on

Just a handful of the craftsmen who make traditional chopping blocks are still in the business, and they're proud of what they do

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 December, 2013, 12:16pm

The trendiest thing worn at Kwun Tong's Lok Wah market is a bloodstained apron, tucked around the naked beer belly of a balding butcher.

The carnage is striking: layers of pork fat lie in bamboo baskets as flies buzz around bloody pork knuckles and ribs dangling from crude metal hooks.

In the middle of it all is Lo Wai-hung, a 61-year-old man kneeling on the floor of the dilapidated market, hammering away at a thick slab of wood.

He's not a butcher, but one of the few craftsmen left in the age-old business of making traditional chopping blocks.

As in many other Hong Kong industries, mechanisation and a drain of manufacturing to the mainland have pushed traditional local craftsmanship to the brink of existence.

Lo is the personification of that trend; he's the only chopping block maker left in Hong Kong still making his product by hand. Traditional chopping board makers - zum ban sifu in Cantonese - go to the markets personally, equipped with their tools and a few blocks of wood.

They have to remove old, worn out chopping blocks from whatever hole or frame they are installed in and fashion new ones to fit by chipping at and shaving a new piece of wood. As each installation is different, they must fit boards precisely to the specific dimensions.

Once, these craftsmen dominated the market for household chopping boards. Today almost all supermarkets, butcher's stalls and restaurants in the city still depend on their custom-made boards.

But their numbers have been dwindling since the 1990s when imports from the mainland gradually dominated the market for domestic chopping boards and made inroads into the commercial market.

To stay competitive, many local board makers stopped custom-fitting chopping boards, instead opting to mass produce them with machines.

Now, there are only four makers who can custom-fit a block in Hong Kong.

Is it a dying art?

"Of course it is," says Lo, as he removes a worn chopping block from a butcher's table, revealing a nest of two dozen cockroaches and leeches feasting on blood that had oozed into the cavity that held it.

He says: "Just look at this and ask yourself - would youngsters these days want to do a job like this?"

Known to his clients as "Brother Hung", Lo is a veteran of the trade and has been making chopping boards for 34 years.

Lo fled Guiyang , in Guizhou province , for Hong Kong when he was 20 years old after being rejected as a People's Liberation Army recruit because he had a liver ailment during the Cultural Revolution.

Upon arriving in 1972, Lo had few job options because his studies had been cut short by the turmoil on the mainland.

With only a primary school education, he began working in Hong Kong in the textile industry before going to work in his uncle's chopping board business in 1979 for HK$1,800 a month.

Lo says making chopping boards is a skill that is "easy to learn but difficult to master".

"It requires a lot of subtle force to shave off the uneven edges of the chopping board, and great precision to hammer away at the ridges," he says.

"That's why I am soaked with sweat even after making one chopping board.

"I tried to teach students before, but they gave up after two weeks because of how tough the labour was and the difficulty of the job," he says.

He recalls fracturing bones in his fingers and bruising his hand many times.

"Accidents happen often in our profession," he says. "There have been cases of board makers having half their hands sliced off or having to reattach the tips of their fingers [after mishaps with] the sharp edges of their machines."

Board makers use topwood and pine wood from Southeast Asia and Africa.

Leung Chun-kit, a chopping board maker for 33 years who owns Lee Hang Cutting Board in Sham Shui Po, says: "Topwood is tougher, which is better for chopping red meat, but pine is more pliable, and thus more suitable for cutting fish … also, termites don't eat it."

Leung says there is a misconception among consumers that plastic chopping boards are more hygienic than wooden boards.

"When you hack at the board, there will inevitably be bits and pieces of wood or plastic attached to the meat," he says. "While many believe plastic is smoother, sturdier, lighter and more clean, it is actually more hazardous to one's health if ingested."

For Leung, his trade is not about money, but about interest.

"It's an honest profession that helps me sustain a living," he says. "But above all I am interested in it. It is very rewarding for me to see that after the wood has gone through so many stages of production in many different companies and countries, that the users are satisfied with their chopping board."

However, as the price of raw materials rises, Lo says it is increasingly difficult to make a living from making the boards. What he once sold for HK$50 he now sells for HK$420 to cover higher production costs.

Higher material costs have prompted another man in the trade - Au Kam-hung, owner of Man Kee Chopping Board, the biggest and oldest name in the business - to diversify into furniture, kitchen utensils and even clothing. His newest venture is a cake shop.

"I go where the market flows," says Au. "Yes, it is certainly a dying industry, and even our own children are unwilling to learn the tricks of the trade, let alone the next generation. But why be so nostalgic? When all of us one day retire and pass away, demand will once again draw in new talent."

However, Leung and Lo have a different take.

"There are no youngsters coming into what is perceived to be an antiquated and obsolete profession," Leung says. "But though this trade is tasteless, it is still a pity to let it die out," he said, borrowing a Chinese saying.

Lo says: "It is something that is very unique to Hong Kong. Nowhere else in the world are there chopping board makers like us that cater to such a specific need. Once we're gone, there really will be no one left."