A century ago Tai Cheong, a local family business, started making small wooden figures in the shape of gods for fishermen seeking their protection, when Macao had a big fishing community. When the fishing industry went into decline in the 1950s, woodwork shops like Tai Cheong closed down one by one. Today, only Tai Cheong survives; it has moved on to making sophisticated Buddhist figures for temples and religious organisations worldwide. It no longer makes tiny ancestral worship tablets, but takes on demanding multi-million-dollar projects that require meticulous design, careful planning and a wide range of traditional and innovative techniques.
Tsang Tak Hang, eldest of the Tsang brothers, proudly said: “Macao’s religious figure carving has rich historical origins. Our artisans love and respect their work, preserving this traditional craft and keeping it alive. We also use and experiment with new techniques from different countries to stay ahead of the times. Our work now compares favourably with those in neighbouring regions.”
Tai Cheong’s decades of work received prestigious recognition in June 2008: the State Council included Macao’s religious figure carving on the National Intangible Cultural Heritage List, the first time the territory has received such an award.
In conferring such an honour on Macao, the council recognised not only Macao’s artistic achievements but also its commitment to continue and enrich a cultural heritage through the generations.
A family story of a century
Tai Cheong’s story began in 1910, when the grandfather of Tsang opened the shop on Rua da Madeira, near the Inner Harbor where fishing boats were berthed. Then, a third of Macao’s population were fishermen who needed small statues and tablets for the worship of their ancestors and gods on their boats. There was great demand for such wooden figures, coming also from fishermen in neighbouring waters.
Tsang remembers the days of hard toil. “Father worked from morning to night. I started to help out when I was eight. The shop was small and had no windows; it had about 200 sq ft and about ten people worked in it. I and my five brothers had to sleep on the street at night, just like everybody else at the time.”
“Work was not that difficult. The demands of fishermen were easy to meet. The facial features of these toy-like statues were simple. One day, a teacher saw me doing the carving and remarked that there was a future in such a trade. He greatly encouraged me.”
Then the bad times came. The thriving fishing business came to a halt after 1950s, when China closed its doors to the world. “In 1950,” recalled Tsang, “Macao was like a dead city and many commercial activities came to a halt. Our street was filled with idle construction workers waiting for work. So, when there was a typhoon and houses collapsed, they rushed to offer to do repair work.”
The difficulties at home drove the Tsang brothers to Hong Kong. “In life, whenever there is a crisis, there is an opportunity,” he said. They worked in a printing company, learning about graphics and photo films. They studied English at evening school and were able to read English-language manuals of their trade. Later, they were briefly sent to Germany to learn graphic production. “The trip, though short, really opened our eyes on the world.”
In Hong Kong, Tsang learned for the first time how to make complex Buddhist figures. Large numbers of monks and temple craftsmen had fled from China to Hong Kong. Near where he lived was an artisan from Ningbo making Buddhist statues. “I noted the complex skills required for the work and realised what we did in Macao was not good enough.”
Travelling the world to become a better craftsman
Tsang travelled to Ningbo in the late 1970s to learn more from the craftsmen there. He found that the craft of religious figure engraving had almost disappeared, with the closure of temples during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. Craftsmen were laid off and given only occasional work to repair crumbling temples.
Tsang managed to track down the last surviving state-owned factory still making the statues in the traditional way and bought from them statues, masks and other items. “It was our good fortune to stumble upon such a valuable collection. It has provided us with a complete set of useful materials that show us fine wood-working and lacquering techniques.” Today, such refined art is rarely seen, as high production costs and the complicated process have driven it close to extinction.
Tsang also went to Japan, Taiwan and even Burma to learn their carving techniques such as gold leafing, Buddhist figure modeling and classic lacquering.
The Tsang brothers eventually moved back to Macao from Hong Kong, to be close to their ageing parents. Tai Cheong still stands where it was a century ago, but the street has changed beyond recognition.
Neighbouring woodwork shops have shut down and the space taken up by different businesses. Only one of these wood carving shops remains, called Artigos Religiosos Kuong Weng, which was set up in 1993 by former employees of Tai Cheong.
Eighty percent of Tai Cheong’s work is now for export, to the United States, Canada and Southeast Asia. “Once you have established your credibility with your clients, there will be a steady stream of orders from them.”
They have a factory in Zhongshan and the shop in Macao is now used to display many exquisite Buddhist figures.
One of Tai Cheong’s major projects is a 30 foot-high Buddhist statue for the Miu Fat Temple in Hong Kong. It weighs 30 tonnes and took eight years to complete. Tsang recalls the challenges in building this gigantic structure: “The original plan was to have a steel frame inside the statue. I told my client that, if the steel became rusty, it would not be able to adjust to the substantial expansion of the wood inside. Eventually, we changed to using 150 wooden rods with the same radius to replace the steel frame, so that they could expand to the same extent as the wood, with changes in the climate.”
A more recent project, completed in 2007, is a 15 feet-high seven-storey hexagon Buddhist tower, with the parts made in Macao and then assembled in Los Angeles in the United States. There are a total of 100 pieces, each of which can be assembled or dismantled. Each side of the tower has on each level dangling golden bells and transparent adjustable doors. There are 49 small Buddhist statues inside, with LED lights beaming on them.
Tsang’s desire for excellence is hard to find in the industry. In China, engraving companies are increasingly using machines for mass production, abandoning time-consuming hand-made processes. Tsang is not concerned about competition from the mainland, as well-informed clients can distinguish quality from rush jobs.
“The making of a statue involves many processes and each process involves many specialised and artistic steps. We cannot take each step lightly as a Buddhist statue is created to inspire faith in believers.”
Tsang has groomed his young nephew, Ken, to take over the business. In the future, rising labour costs will make it difficult to have enough skilled craftsmen to do each of the many painstaking processes required. In the past, a skilled artisan could have three or four low-cost apprentices at the same time, allowing him to do his work meticulously and produce high-quality works. Tsang hopes the government will provide support to help train craftsmen, by allowing them, for example, to take part in cultural preservation projects that use their skills.
By Louise do Rosário in Macao
(Issue N. 4, July 2010)