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Hong Kong’s tiny understairs shops: artisan mahjong tile maker on the dying art of hand carving in the machine age

Cheung Shun-king, 63, one of Hong Kong’s few artisan mahjong tile carvers, can’t make a living from his trade in an age of electronic mahjong tables and multiple entertainment options, but he knows nothing else – so he carries on

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 September, 2017, 10:33am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 September, 2017, 7:13pm

With more than half a dozen mahjong parlours in the area, it is surprising to see Biu Kee Mahjong, a maker of artisan mahjong tiles, struggling.

Proprietor Cheung Shun-king, 63, whose shop on Jordan Road is just opposite the entrance to the Temple Street night market, is one of the few masters of making hand-carved mahjong tiles left in Hong Kong.

“There was no formal training or apprenticeship [when I started],” he says. “We’d come back from school and watch how my father and my grandfather did it.”

Cheung started helping out full-time in the shop soon after he finished school and became an artisan mahjong maker himself. His father opened Biu Kee Mahjong in the mid-1960s. The business moved to a few understairs locations in the area and finally settled on 26 Jordan Road about 20 years ago.

Not long after they moved in, Cheung’s business began to go downhill.

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“My business has never been quite the same since electronic mahjong tables were invented about 20 years ago,” says Cheung. Predominantly mass produced in China, the automatic mahjong tables require smaller, magnetic tiles. These mahjong sets sell for about HK$200. Priced at HK$4,000, Cheung’s hand-carved mahjong sets have trouble competing.

Cheung also attributes the drop in demand for his artisan craft to the emergence of different kinds of entertainment. “Back in the ’70s, everyone played mahjong because there was nothing else to play,” he says. “There was a time when I made at least three sets a day, now I only get orders for three to four new sets a year.”

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While the mahjong industry may have evolved, Cheung’s engraving tools remain the same. There are 144 tiles in one mahjong set and he uses three main tools to carve out the different patterns. First, he pulls out a utensil that resembles a set of compasses. Using the edge of the tile as a lever, the teeth on the other end carve out the bamboo pattern.

His next tool looks almost like a small bow and arrow. As Cheung moves the wooden lever up and down, the teeth on the bottom of the tool etch out a circle pattern.

Then he uses a knife to engrave the Chinese characters and make final adjustments to the other patterns.

“With hand-carved mahjong tiles you should be able to tell the patterns just by touching them. They should never have a plastic smell and the colour should stay vibrant for decades,” says Cheung, adding that veteran mahjong players still hold artisan mahjong making very close to their hearts.

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Some of Cheung’s other clients are collectors, who buy his works so they can hold on to a remnant of this shrinking craft before it disappears from Hong Kong completely.

After five decades in the industry, Cheung is not optimistic about the future of hand-carved mahjong sets. He says it is impossible to make a living out of his business. But this is the only livelihood he has ever known so, for now at least, Biu Kee Mahjong is still open for business.