Masters of wood – Macao museum remembers China’s master carpenter

7 July 2017

Down a narrow street in central Macao, close to Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro is the Lu Ban Carpentry Exhibition, dedicated to Lu Ban, a master carpenter, engineer and inventor who lived 2,500 years ago and is generally known as China’s patron of builders and contractors.

The museum, which opened in 2015, sits on the original site of a temple dedicated to Lu. Built in 1840, local carpenters would visit the temple before embarking on new projects to seek his blessing, bowing before his statue and burning incense. Twice a year, a Daoist priest conducted a ceremony at which food was distributed to the community in Lu’s name.

On the museum’s second floor, above the temple, is the office of the Macao Carpentry Trade Union (MCTU). In 2012, the union approached the government’s Cultural Affairs Bureau (IC) and proposed transforming the site into a museum. “We agreed with the carpenters that the history of the trade is a valuable part of the city’s culture and should be preserved and on display to the public. Currently, there are only a handful of carpenters left in Macao, and fewer young people want to enter the profession. We fear that one day there will be none left in the city,” says Daisy Chao Hong Peng, senior technician at the IC’s Department of Cultural Heritage. “We want to show people the traditional wisdom and skills of Macao’s carpenters. The exhibition is also a very informative source for research,” she adds.

The IC invested MOP5.2 million to restore the temple and pull together an exhibition displaying Lu’s inventions. The exhibition also contains donated tools from retired local carpenters. “We have been using and applying these carpentry tools and skills for thousands of years,” says Vong Heng Cheong, director of the MCTU. “We would like to conserve and introduce them to the next generation before the skills become extinct.”

A HISTORICAL TRADE THREATENED

Carpentry is one of Macao’s oldest professions. “Historically, wood was the main material for buildings and furniture,” says Chao. Raw material imported from the mainland and neighbouring regions was then transformed into a myriad of structural and household goods, including pillars, beams and floorboards for houses as well as chairs, beds, tables and other pieces of furniture.

At the peak of the profession, during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), there were roughly 2,000 carpenters in the city. But, like with many professions, competition from the mainland following the open-door and reform policy of the early 1980s forced wages lower. Easier and cheaper access to timber also drove profits down, and it became progressively more difficult for local carpenters to compete.

Districts like Dachong in Zhongshan, on the western side of the Pearl River Delta, have become international hubs of mahogany furniture production, supplying both the domestic market and exporting overseas. These industry centres possess economies of scale and new technologies with which Macao simply cannot compete. These days, the majority of Macao residents and developers purchase their furniture from suppliers across the border in Zhuhai.

Another factor in the decline of local carpentry is the variety of materials now used in the production of furniture, such as aluminium, steel, plastic and rubber, which has reduced the demand for wood furniture.

Currently, there are roughly 100 working carpenters in the city, all between the ages of 40 and 60 years old. Few young people want to enter a profession whose prospects seem bleak. To encourage a resurgence of the trade, the MCTU has been offering training classes. This training programme is actually one of the major inspirations behind the museum.

As the city’s carpenters have retired, many have gifted their tools to the union. Rather than storing them away in a forgotten cupboard to rust and gather dust, displaying them is a testament to their trade and might inspire future generations to carry on the craft. More than 80 items are currently included in the exhibit, together with audio-visual and interactive components. These tools are not merely instruments for making a piece of furniture; they are imbued with the personality of their users, and many even bear the names of those who once wielded them.

The exhibit also includes reproductions of ancient tools, such as a pump drill once used to bore small holes and a chalk line used to mark straight edges. (Macao Magazine, by Mark O’Neill, photo by Eric Tam)

MACAUHUB FRENCH