Sunday, November 29, 2009

Traditional temple woodcarver Hong Yao-hui showing his exquisite works at Taipei gallery

By Nancy T.:Lu

Traditional woodcarvers are not born overnight. They must undergo long years of training and hard work usually as a protégé of a master of the traditional woodcarving craft to perfect their skill and earn recognition for their superb craftsmanship.

Fifty-year-old Hong Yao-hui – mentor to the younger generation of woodcarving artisans in Taiwan – has been at his art and craft for 30 years. The Department of Cultural Affairs under the Taipei City Government has singled him out for unprecedented recognition and honor through the “Taipei Traditional Art Skill Teacher Award.” In this connection, he – who teaches cultural monument restoration at the National Taiwan University of the Arts in Banciao – is holding a one-man show in the basement exhibition area of the Taipei Municipal Social Education Hall until December 9.

On display are 33 ornate carvings of exquisite workmanship, including 12 on loan from collectors, seven old works as well as 14 new pieces created for this particular exhibition. Camphor wood is commonly used by Hong in his works.

The intangible cultural heritage Hong has tried to preserve includes concentration on traditional woodcarving subjects and themes of long history. Auspicious messages are often conveyed in his traditional carvings, too.

“Flooding of Jinshan Monastery,” “Eight Immortals,” “Magpie Brings Wealth,” and “Carp Dives for Fame and Glory” are examples of Hong’s labor of love now on public view. A not-so-big piece takes four months to finish.

Structural features of traditional Chinese architecture like the lion, the kylin or Chinese unicorn, the leopard, the sea-tortoise, and the flying phoenix all fall under Hong’s expertise. He works on flowers and birds or classic figures for his decorative pieces.

Hong was born to a very poor family in Beimen Xiang, Tainan County. Upon graduating from junior high school, he felt obliged to eke out a living. His father influenced him to find work with Su Hai-ping. The master craftsman in temple building from Quanzhou, Fujian province, was an artisan in traditional Chinese woodwork and carving in demand in those days when houses of worship were being constructed in Taiwan.

After only one month of working as Su’s protégé, Hong ran away due to the hardships of life. .His father, however, made him go back. He stayed for three years and four months as a trainee. Every morning, he got up at 5 o’clock, went to the market, prepared three meals, cleaned up the surroundings and spent four to five hours learning woodcarving. Only at midnight did he go to bed.

Hong only had 15 days off every year. As beginner in the first six months, he earned only NT$50 per half month. After six months, his pay was increased to NT$100 every half month. The amount went up to NT$300 after a year and NT$500 after a year and a half. After two years and six months until completion of the training, he received NT$1,000. During the Lunar New Year, the red envelop he got contained NT$500, then NT$1,500 and finally, NT$2,000. All told, he earned just enough to buy him passage home.

Hong got scolded for his initially poor-quality carving and his mistakes. .But he learned to be patient and to show respect towards his mentor. He became like a member of the Su family, even helping look after a cancer-stricken son of his teacher.

While still a trainee in 1979, Hong participated in the construction of the Puji Temple on Huayin Street in Taipei. This meant living and working at the site. He had to daily prepare three meals and collect 30 pails of water for the day’s use. He unrolled a straw mat to make his bed on the floor at night. There was no toilet and he had to bathe in cold water. The building of the temple began on the ground floor, moving up gradually until reaching the third floor. Everything had to be brought up manually. He at one point even had to sleep under the open sky, getting wet on rainy nights.

During Hong’s training period, his teacher Su also undertook work like the ceiling carving in the rear hall of the Dong Long Temple in Beimen, Tainan County, in 1977. Carvings at the Dragon and Tiger Doors of this place of worship were also done then. Wu Fu Qian Sui Temple in Qigu Xiang, Tainan County, was a big project in 1978.

The major reconstruction of the Zu Shi Temple in Sanxia starting in 1986 saw the recruitment of master craftsmen of different schools to carry out the job. Lee Mei-shu was behind the ambitious project. Su Hai-ping moved to Sanxia. Hong, his protégé, followed him there. Over a 15-year period from 1986 to 2001, Hong labored over many admirable intricate woodcarving details of the Zu Shi Temple. Lee Mei-shu’s death saw the disbanding of the original artisans and craftsmen he hired.

For those interested in seeing the beautiful woodcarvings of Hong Yao-hui, tthe Taipei Municipal Social Education Hall is located at 25 Bade Road, Sec. 3, Taipei.

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