- You and Me
- Family Shop
- The Masterpiece
- Feature Stories
Passing on the craft, the love
In the old days when machinery was a distant buzz, a skilled craftsman could make magic with his hands. Who would have envisaged these skills would turn into handcrafts that need to be preserved and passed on in our city today?
Chinese-style cake, embroidery, sewing, Taoist paper art…What’s left of the countless handcrafts that have been vanishing? There’s one familiar echo: hand-carved mahjong tiles.
Both the grandfather and the father of Karen Aruba were artisan mahjong tile carvers. As a child, she spent many joyous days watching her family polish, carve and colour mahjong tiles, and joining them in the delivery truck for an adventure.
The golden era resounds as a precious memory. Today, she would like to share with you a story.
From spotlight to twilight
Born in Guangdong, Cheung Fu-wah was an apprentice in the trade of hand-carved mahjong tiles. In the 1950s, he moved to Hong Kong in search of a new life. In 1963, he opened Fuk Hing Lung in Kowloon City, a manufacturer of mahjong tiles for local mahjong schools.
It was a simple life in a small workshop: Cheung carved the tiles, and his wife did the colouring.
The master brought up three sons on the family business. The second son, Cheung Shing-chung, learnt the craft and oversaw the family’s mahjong tile plant after graduating from high school. The Cheungs were witnesses to the golden era of hand-carved mahjong tiles in Hong Kong in the 1980s and 1990s.
“My eldest uncle managed the accounts. My youngest uncle polished the mahjong tiles, and my father did the carving. My grandmother, my mother and my youngest aunt took care of the colouring. Everyone had their own role. Together they did a wonderful job.” Karen says this picture of her family is imprinted on her mind.
As the family were at work through the days and Karen was the only child, she often spent time at the mahjong tile plant and accompanied her father to deliver the tiles to the clients. Later she tried her hand at colouring the tiles. “It’s great fun and it’s just like painting. Yet it’s also challenging: you need to be precise with your brushstroke to avoid the paint running over the margins. After letting it air dry for 45 minutes, you scrap off the dried paint and apply another coat of paint on the tile.” Once she coloured an entire set of mahjong tiles on her own. “It felt nothing short of marvellous.”
As she explains, mahjong tile hand-carving requires excellent control. While she is familiar with the character stroke order, she has never tried carving the tiles herself.
“It was a complicated process. The raw material (Editor’s note: premium quality plastic from Germany) was shaped like a block of tofu, and it was sharp around the edges. After my youngest uncle did the cutting [of the plastic into tiles], he did the polishing and my father did the carving [of the characters]. The next step was colouring. After the paint had dried, the excess paint was scrapped off. The whole process took two days to complete.”
Karen says her family were already master craftsmen in making mahjong tiles back in the days. “I hanged around my father a lot. He didn’t make any drafts, but went straight to carving. A few strokes here and there, and the tile was done in a couple minutes.”
The 1990s saw the demolition of the Kowloon Wall City. Fuk Hing Lung was relocated to Kowloon Bay, and a dozen craftsmen were hired at the plant. “At its peak, our company was the mahjong tile supplier for half of the mahjong schools in Hong Kong (Editor’s note: there were 99 mahjong school licenses in Hong Kong at the time), as well as a number of hotels.”
By that point in time, machinery was used for parts of the production process such as burnishing, followed by manual polishing. “The mahjong tiles at mahjong schools got worn out quickly: they’d crack or become discoloured in places. As it was costly to buy a new set, the mahjong schools would get us to repolish the tiles. It involved grinding off the surface [plastic] and then replacing it with new material.”
While the use of machinery helped reduce labour cost, it also meant the inevitable end to the trade of mahjong tile hand-carving. “Hand-carved mahjong tiles were gradually replaced by automated mahjong tables manufactured in the Mainland. An automated mahjong table cost HK$400, whereas a set of hand-carved mahjong tiles cost HK$1,200.”
In 2009, Fuk Hing Lung closed its doors. Cheung Chung, who was in his early 50s, had to switch profession. “Today, there’re only a handful of artisan carvers of mahjong tiles for commercial use in Hong Kong.”
Rolling Back The Years
Even in her adult years, the picture still stirs Karen’s mind—her family carving mahjong tiles, and herself colouring the beautiful creations. “When the mahjong tile plant closed down, there was nothing I could do to help my family.” Karen has always been a lover of painting and travel. One day the idea came to her mind: Why not tell the world about the art of mahjong tile hand-carving?
She painted the story of mahjong tile hand-carving into a series titled “How to make mahjong”, which features mahjong tile hand-carving tools as the motif. Later she re-created glimpses of her family’s factory in Kowloon City in a series of illustrations. “As paintings were rather hard to sell, I designed a collection of illustrated water bottles, shirts, thermos for online sale. The products were popular among overseas buyers, probably because there was a Western touch to the painting style.”
Last year, she was invited to take part in DesignInsire. “I met many enterprises at the fair. They respected the dedication of the master craftsmen and the value of hand-carved works.”
With the support from the printing firm Kanghong Digital Image, she created the “Travel Mahjong City” souvenir collection. A spotlight of the collection is the characters “East”, “South”, “West”, “North”, “Centre” designed and hand-carved by her father. The collection won the Judge Award of the Hong Kong Smart Design Awards.
“After our plant closed down, my father wasn’t keen on carving mahjong tiles anymore. Yet my passion moved him; he even bought new tools and paints, and picked up carving mahjong tiles again.” As Karen mentions, the family threw away all mahjong tile production tools when the plant closed down. Today, she is thrilled to see her father return to his craft. “We depict the whole process in illustrations and introduce the story of hand-carved mahjong tiles on the website, including a display of the tools.” She hopes to build her collection of mahjong tile hand-carving tools for a future exhibition.
A handcraft with deep connections to our daily life, mahjong tile hand-carving embodies the stories of many Hong Kong people and the city through the decades.