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Published: 10:44, March 04, 2022 | Updated: 12:07, March 04, 2022
The fine art of chiseling timber
By Faye Bradley
Published:10:44, March 04, 2022 Updated:12:07, March 04, 2022 By Faye Bradley

Woodworking was a dying industry in Hong Kong until shifting sensibilities and a particularly fierce typhoon prompted a revival. Faye Bradley uncovers what matters most to today’s woodwork aficionados.

Chamber of Time showcases the amazingly meticulous woodcraft skills of Master Siu Ping-keung and Ken Chow. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

On SoHo’s Peel Street, a restored heritage building houses Crafts on Peel: a nonprofit venue and foundation. Here Hong Kong craftsmanship is celebrated through collaborations between traditional and modern designers and artists. Its current exhibition, Stories Encapsulated: Wood, pays homage to the local tradition of woodworking that once enjoyed a thriving international market.  

The three-story space is showcasing a variety of wooden objects, some of them collaborative projects, made by local and overseas craftsmen. The works range from small decorative to furniture pieces, each with its own unique story. Master Siu Ping-keung and Ken Chow were inspired by the Nordic-style tambour cabinet to create Chamber of Time — its doors open to reveal intricate carved scenes depicting life in the Ming and Qing dynasties. A young trio — Yip Chun-hang, Jesse Hao and Roy Ng — carved Wood Tectonics, a pair of flower-shaped pieces, from pomelo and guava branches with a wood lathe. The Passage, a series of lacquered screw-pine utensils, are the handiwork of Master Wong Kin-hung and Jacky Lam. 

Penelope Luk, creative director of the nonprofit Crafts on Peel and co-curator of Stories Encapsulated: Wood. Luk oversaw the 11 Peel Street building’s revitalization into a facility to help sustain traditional craft techniques. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Joining past and future

Hong Kong has two styles of woodworking: modern and traditional. The modern form involves hammer and nails, while the traditional style sees joints carved and fitted together to form a rigid, self-supporting structure.

Processing wood was also an integral part of Hong Kong’s woodworking industry. Both imported and locally sourced timber would be sawed, sanded, dried and supplied to clients. “When the wood-processing industry was flourishing in Hong Kong, many sawmills were situated near the dockyards to produce lumber for shipbuilding and repairing,” says Penelope Luk, creative director at Crafts on Peel and co-curator of Stories Encapsulated.

Ricci Wong (left), HK TimberBank’s founder and CEO, and Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing survey the raw materials left by Typhoon Mangkhut in 2018. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Hong Kong was famous for manufacturing furniture between the 1950s and ’80s, but demand declined thereafter as factories moved their operations to the Chinese mainland. New technologies came in, and the convenient binding power of glue and screws pushed out traditional methods. “As the economic paradigm shifted, many sawmills repositioned themselves to focus on waste recycling and wood renovation in Hong Kong,” Luk explains.

By the end of the ’80s, woodworking was a dying industry. However, a revival began after September 2018’s Typhoon Mangkhut uprooted tens of thousands of trees. These would have ended up in a landfill were it not for the HK TimberBank, created with the mission to recycle dead trees by turning them into furniture, with support from local artisans.

Ken Chow, co-curator of Stories Encapsulated: Wood and founder of Yat Muk Studio, an interior design and contracting firm, has made fostering the craft of woodworking his mission. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The Passage, created by Master Wong King-hung and Jacky Lam. In the handiwork, Wong, a traditional craftsman with a deep knowledge of screw pine, explores the material’s possibilities with Lam, a contemporary artisan. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

In addition, the past decade has seen more professional and amateur wood craftsmen participating in classes, and sculpting toys, furniture and tableware. “Although we may just be at the beginning of the revival of the woodwork industry in Hong Kong, I believe that the industry will have a resurgence under a new model in the following 20 or 30 years,” says Chow, also a co-curator of Stories Encapsulated.

The family-run Chi Kee Sawmill & Timber in Sheung Shui is possibly the largest of Hong Kong’s surviving traditional sawmills. Wong Hung-kuen took over the 10,000-square-foot space from his father, who founded the company in 1946. “There are over 100 years of history in the Hong Kong woodworking industry, and although it’s changed, it will always exist,” says Wong. Interestingly, the sawmill has a cult social media following, its digital channels managed by Wong’s daughter. Before the pandemic put a pause on such activities, the company regularly hosted workshops that filled up quickly — a positive sign of the public’s renewed interest in the woodworking tradition.

The Sustainable Construction Playground at the CIC-Zero Carbon Park. The playground equipment was upcycled from abandoned timber. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Sustainability matters

Wong notes that consumer attitude is shifting.  Young people are more keen on sustainability. Carpenter Cynthia Wu, an alumna of the Hong Kong Institute of Construction (HKIC), says consumers prefer pine and oak furniture because these woods are sustainable compared with rosewood and teak, as they grow faster. Last November, the Construction Industry Council’s Zero Carbon Park in Kowloon Bay collaborated with the HKIC and Recycle Green to provide a Sustainable Construction Playground built from upcycled scrap timber. Meanwhile, Nan Fung Group’s “In Time of” program last autumn hosted Playing Woodstock: Hong Kong Woodwork, an exhibition showcasing local woodcraft groups’ works made from recycled logs. The event aimed to promote wood recycling and enhance the public’s awareness of wood as a precious resource.

There is a growing appreciation for artisanal skills, as well as pride in local heritage, particularly as it relates to industries under threat. As Luk notes: “Each craftsman puts in their sweat and tears, overcoming challenges and continuously enhancing their skills to produce the wooden objects we see before us.”

Wong Hung-kuen (right), owner of Chi Kee Sawmill & Timber, being interviewed by a journalist. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Drewswork Workshop participants display their foldable stools at the end of a woodworking class. The company is offering only one-on-one or single-family classes in response to the local COVID situation. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Despite the plethora of choices in the market, the “made in Hong Kong” tag has a special appeal for buyers. Many are willing to pay higher prices for such exemplars, says Wu. Hong Kong designers tend to combine modern and traditional Chinese styles, while Wu herself uses modern technologies such as laser cutting and 3D printing. Venues like the MakerHive in Kennedy Town — a coworking space for designers — provide facilities that include woodworking tools. “Craftsmanship is (part of the) intangible heritage embedded into Hong Kong’s social networks and deeply rooted in its communities,” Luk notes. “It’s important for us to revitalize craftsmanship so that future generations can continue to celebrate our cultural heritage.”

Recent woodworking workshops, geared toward a growing community of aficionados, have covered techniques ranging from mortise and tenon to lacquering to carving. HKIC offers a free, one-year Diploma in Construction (Joinery) (face-to-face training is temporarily suspended because of the fifth wave). The Drewswork Workshop in Fo Tan, founded by a master carpenter from Germany, until recently hosted a beginner’s class that was typically full, despite taking place on weekdays. Since the latest COVID-19 surge in Hong Kong, the establishment offers only private workshops for members of the same family or one-on-one classes.

MakerHive, a coworking space and prototyping workshop in Kennedy Town. Facilities at the 800-square-foot workshop include a 3D printer, soldering station, industrial sewing machine, and fabric-cutting and pattern-making tables. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Chow notes that the most effective way to preserve the woodworking tradition is to create and maintain demand. He adds that this is not always possible, however, bearing in mind the need for artisans to make a profit, and the painstaking hours of labor involved, particularly for custom pieces. As for Luk, she highlights the contribution of every member of the community, including apprentices, artisans, designers, creatives, aficionados, collectors and end users: “The key for traditional crafts to enter modern life is to have a group of passionate and dedicated inheritors and contributors within the ecosystem.”

If you go

Stories Encapsulated: Wood

Date: Through May 21 (visits by appointment)

Venue: Crafts on Peel, 11 Peel Street, Central


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