26 October 2016
Many young women are interested in wood working as a hobby. Photo: Photo: St. James Settlement
Many young women are interested in wood working as a hobby. Photo: Photo: St. James Settlement

Passing on the craft before it’s too late

Traditional crafts are fast disappearing in Hong Kong but some old masters are trying to pass on their skills as much as possible while they can.

One of them, an 81-year-old man surnamed Lung, has been holding Chinese carpentry classes with the help of non-profit organizations such as St. James Settlement.

“I never imagined so many people are interested in the craft,” Lung says.

Most of his students are young people.

One might think wood working is a guy thing but many of Lung’s students are young women.

Some students say they get a kick out of making something with their own hands. Some say it is much more fun than sitting on the couch watching TV.

Chinese carpentry goes back almost 3,000 years.

In Hong Kong, local furniture was primarily made of wood until the late 1980s when much cheaper plastic alternatives began to crop up.

Competition from mainland workshops hastened the demise of the Hong Kong craft industry.

But carpenters were once very much sought after. Finding a job was never a problem then.

“You can’t make a living off it anymore. Learning it for fun is okay, but not as a career,” Lung says.

Lung teaches the basics of carpentry from drawing the blueprint to putting the finishing touches.

He does it to his heart’s content as long as the students are willing to learn.

Lung appreciates that fact that his students are keen to learn from him. “Passing on my skills makes me happy also.”

Traditional furniture is usually stronger but Hongkongers are more into new design nowadays.

When there is a big sale, they won’t hesitate to throw away their old furniture.

Lung is known for his easy-going character. Most of all, he tolerate mistakes.

“No matter what mistakes we make and how badly we make them, he is always there to help,” one student says.

Lung was not as lucky when he was a carpenter’s apprentice. “It was a lot harder,” he says.

His first task was to cut wood blocks into the right size.

“You didn’t get to learn serious techniques until a new apprentice came along to take your place.”

After “graduation”, Lung formed a company with a group of partners and ran the business until he retired.

There was a point when he almost gave up because of excruciating back pain.

He fought back by hiking everyday. Miraculously, he recovered.

Now Lung is passing on his fighting spirit, more than just techniques.

“He never gets tired,” one student says.

“It’s amazing how at his age he’s still able to move wood boards bigger than him.” 

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Students come up with new designs and applications that may help reinvent the craft. Who knows? Photo: St. James Settlement

Lung wants to keep teaching carpentry to wood work lovers, saying “it’s a shame if the craft is lost”. Photo: St. James Settlement

EJ Insight writer

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