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Elderly palanquin builder strives to keep craft alive

Elderly palanquin builder strives to keep craft alive

Photos 111, 112 By Flor Wang CNA staff writer Wang Yung-chuan still works every day, despite the fact that he is 77 years old. People passing by his home in an old mansion in Tainan City might take him for just another elderly man trying to occupy his time. But Wang is in fact a master craftsman in a highly specialized field.
In the mansion on the intersection of Shennung and Haian streets in the southern city's downtown area, he has a workshop where he makes palanquins.
In Taiwan, palanquins are used to carry the statues of Taoist gods in religious parades and on pilgrimages.
The sedan chairs, as they are also known, vary in size and are usually carried by four to 12 male Taoist followers. They are essentially elaborate wooden carriages on poles, and date back hundreds of years in Asia.
Wang has been building these vehicles for 50 years.
Although they are now being made commercially with the use of modern equipment and techniques, there is still a market for the exquisite handcarved palanquins that Wang turns out.
In his hometown, some 80 percent of the local temples contain palanquins or wooden sculptures made by Wang. He also receives orders for the chairs from temples outside Tainan City. Wang began learning his craft at an early age. When he was 15, he started working alongside his father, learning carpentry to help his family make a living.
A smart and diligent apprentice, he soon learned to make simple pieces such as tables, cupboards, shelves and tool racks.
By the 1970s he had acquired solid skills as a craftsman and a good reputation in southern Taiwan and he began applying his expertise to the crafting of palanquins.
Within a decade, he had built a business that at its peak employed over 20 workers.
"No matter how many orders were flowing in, my workers never dared to cut corners to save time. They were required to pay strict attention to detail, regardless of how busy they were," Wang said.
This approach was observed throughout the entire process, from selection of the materials to design and assembly of the pieces.
These days, business is much slower. Wang gets about 10 orders per year and has a team of some 10 craftsmen, including his son, his son-in-law and his grandson, who work to fill the orders.
Wang says he always uses the best quality Taiwanese camphor wood to make the sedan chairs. He employs traditional techniques to build and carve them. Not a single nail is used in the process. The pieces are fitted together by means of precise joinery, and natural glue is used to secure them.
"Treating the wood with care and sticking to traditional techniques is a life-long passion of mine," he said.
The results of Wang's meticulousness and his adherence to his principles are elaborate and exquisitely crafted works of art that are also sturdy and durable.
"The palanquins must be able to bear the weight of the statues that they are meant to carry, must be resistant to all sorts of weather, and at the same time must be light enough and precisely balanced so that they could be carried easily," Wang said.
Amid the competition that he is now facing from China, Wang said, the key to holding on to his niche is to maintain quality.
"Although China-made wooden sculptures are rampant on the local market, we are not afraid of the competition," he said. "We can stand out as long as our products are of top quality." However, what concerns Wang is the possibility of traditional skills like his dying. As master craftsmen like him grow older, the art of carving sedan chairs by hand will also disappear, he fears.
Some other famed master craftsmen in Tainan City who make sedan chairs were taught by Wang.
"I am fully prepared to pass on my skills to anyone who is willing to learn, " he said.
His family believes that the tradition of making palanquins, which was born among the people, must be preserved and can take root again.
"That belief is what keeps grandpa going," said his grandson.
However, in addition, Wang finds satisfaction in doing something that has brought him public recognition as well as personal joy.
He has been selected as one of the 13 winners of this year's Global Chinese Culture and Arts Award -- Taiwan's highest honor for outstanding achievements across the arts spectrum.
The award will be presented to him by the Ministry of Education Saturday in Taipei County for his passion in preserving the palanquin art and his efforts to pass on his skills to the younger generation.
"It makes me really happy that I can keep working with a chisel and stay connected to my craft," he said.





Updated : 2021-05-15 02:16 GMT+08:00