Bamboo artisans require impeccable patience, continuous trial and error, in order to refine and complete their work. However, the craft industry seems out of touch with the fast-paced city, a space that leaves little room for the past. How can bamboo craftsmanship and its history develop in modern times and pass on its traditions?
Crafts on Peel’s exhibition, IMAGINE THE ‘IM’POSSIBILITIES: BAMBOO, explores this issue by presenting a historical overview of bamboo crafts in Asia, as well as a showcasing works from traditional and modern bamboo artisans from Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Through our interviews with local bamboo artisans, we see how they combine traditional craftsmanship and modern lifestyles, while trying to preserve the history behind the craft.
Accompanying the works and perspectives of local artisans is a thematic overview in Crafts on Peel, where they present the development of bamboo craftsmanship in Asia.
Since the Neolithic Age, people across East Asia have already been making bambooware. As bamboo is a native plant in East Asia, favoured for its abundance, light and sturdy nature, many tools in the past were made out of bamboo. Early bambooware were made for practical purposes, and used in everyday life, like cages and utensils.
In the Song Dynasty, the literati paid more attention to the art of tea ceremony, flower arrangement and incense appreciation. This elevated bambooware from a practical tool to objects with aesthetic value.
In the 1920s, Japanese philosopher Yanago Soetsu advocated the Folk Craft Movement, which influenced bamboo craftsmanship. He believes the aesthetics and practicality of craft can coexist in the same object. His ideas highlight the relationship between the craft maker, user and the craft itself, hoping people will appreciate bamboo’s beauty, when using crafts in the everyday.
Zooming into Hong Kong, there are a few kinds of bamboo crafts found locally. For example, the bamboo steamers we see during yum cha, bamboo bird cages that older folks use to take their birds on a walk and festive lion heads are all made out of bamboo. Based on the development of bamboo craftsmanship in Hong Kong, modern bamboo artisans transform local craftsmanship and integrate it within our everyday lives.
Modern bamboo artisan Ting For Chun uses craft sets as a means for the general public to have a hands-on experience with traditional craftsmanship, through a modern format. He admits that Hong Kong is a fast-paced city, so no one will want to spend years learning a certain craft, unlike Japan and Taiwan, which are able to accommodate the heritage and inheritance of craftsmanship and techniques. Therefore, Ting chooses to promote bamboo weaving through a combination of traditional and modern methods. With the portability of craft sets and accompanying video tutorials, anyone can have a taste of bamboo weaving at home and use the finished product in their daily lives.
As a freelance artisan, Ting has to prepare his craft sets all by himself, from preparing raw materials, to testing out the bamboo weaving pattern. Though it occupies a lot of time to research and test out his craft sets and the finished products, he thinks the time he has invested in this project is worth it.
Ting hopes that people can view bamboo craftsmanship in a new light. He says, “Bamboo craftsmanship is not a technique stuck in the past. Instead, it adapts to modern needs and trends, with everchanging techniques. Bamboo seems like an ordinary material, but I hope city dwellers in Hong Kong use more bambooware in their daily lives and discover its humble beauty.”
Jinno Neko is another participating artisan in Crafts on Peel’s exhibition. She collaborates with Master Cheung Foon on the work Reborn Merman. Master Cheung was responsible for making the lion head, while Jinno Neko made the fish tail, with both parts complementing each other. While the fish tail is part of this work, it can also be configured into wearable fashion pieces.
In relation to working with a traditional bamboo master, she points out, “The lion head represents Master Cheung’s generation, so how can I use my own way, to reinterpret traditional craft? If I simply echo to what Master Cheung did, I am only paying homage to the past, I do not connect it to the present. In order to pass on traditional craft, we have to do what is related to our generation.”
All of Jinno’s papier-mâché works can all be worn. Some people find this terrifying, because they think if one wears papier-mâché, you will into a real-life papier-mâché offering for ancestors. There is a huge cultural taboo surrounding papier-mâché works. In contrast, what Jinno does with her craft is to show others that it is not scary at all.
Bamboo artisans often find it difficult when explaining their craft to outsiders. However, by being in touch with bamboo, they are able to find out what the craft means to them, containing many personal reflections and philosophy, which can then inspire others to see the magic of craftsmanship.
Ting For Chun found that his mindset has changed greatly after engaging in craftsmanship. He thinks that it is normal to fail when making crafts, it is almost the process demands it. Ting believes crafts making becomes a form of self-discipline if he keeps trying to perform better.
On the other hand, Jinno finds the philosophy of bamboo craftsmanship through conversing with Master Cheung. She says, “Master Cheung tells me that bamboo is full of life. When we look at plants, we don’t see it bleed like humans do. One assumes that if something doesn’t bleed, it is lifeless. But there is life in everything, they just show their life force in another way. The job of a bamboo artisan is to breathe life into bamboo and connect people’s lives together. There is deep philosophy embedded into the art of bamboo craftsmanship.”
Bamboo itself and bamboo craft are both full of life. It evolves over time and integrates into our lives. While bamboo craft continues to evolve, its history should still be remembered, despite rapidly changing times.
Crafts and Peel are creating a database of oral histories and textual accounts of the artisans’ crafts. The organization’s creative director, Penelope Luk, elaborates on the importance of the database, “Both traditional and modern artisans have a lot of personal stories, whether it is a particular passion for the craft or a special moment they can never forget, which led them to crafts making industry. That’s why we have collected many stories about craft makers and their teachers, masters and mentors.”
Jinno Neko puts it fittingly, “Passing on a craft doesn’t mean you have to become an artisan, not everyone has that skill. If we cannot learn the craft, what can we do? We can write down and create textual records. It’s okay if you don’t know how to record it down, you can learn to appreciate the craft, or use it in your daily life. If you have the money, you can buy products to support artisans. Everyone has the ability to preserve traditional craftsmanship, it just depends on whether you are willing to do it or not.”
尋竹探藝 IMAGINE THE ‘IM’POSSIBILITIES: BAMBOO
Date: 2020.9.26 – 12.31
Time: Tuesday to Saturday, 11:00 – 18:00
Venue: 中環卑利街11 號
11 Peel Street, Central, Hong Kong
Photos courtesy of the artists and Crafts on Peel
Text by Anna Lam