Sea-Nostalgia — Shipbuilder turns to making model boats, keeping skills that have disappeared

24 July 2016

When I was small and my parents went out fishing, they left me in the care of an old lady in a wooden house by the sea and picked me up in the evening. I spent the day anxiously waiting for their return. When it was high tide, I knew they were coming back. This is a deep memory of my childhood.”

Those early years forged in Wan Chun a bond with the sea which has lasted his whole life. His youth was spent in shipyards demolishing and building ships ordered by fishermen. With the decline of the industry, he changed career. Now, in retirement, he has reverted back to his passion for shipbuilding – only now on a smaller scale, but applying the same hard-learned and polished expertise used decades ago.

Thanks to the support of the Archives of Macao, he has been given a space to work on the porch of the institution facing the spacious open ground of Tap Seac. For the last two years, the stout, reserved 68-year-old Wan has been going to this open workshop, working from morning till night; he treats it like a full-time job which puts his not-forgotten skills to good use.

The institution hosted an exhibition of his work from 29th December until 9th April this year.

At the opening ceremony, Ung Vai Meng, Director of the Cultural Bureau, said: “Civilian ship-building has a long tradition of development, with a history of several hundred years. The ships entirely relied on the skills of the craftsmen. Their skill was the crystallization of the knowledge built up during a lifetime. It was a fine art and contained a rich historical value and tradition.”

Wan said: “Shipbuilding is a traditional industry in Macao, covering over half a century. The yards used to cover all of Macao. At the end of the last century, the skill of Macao’s shipbuilders was the centre of construction for wooden ships in southern China. But now the industry is very small.”

The exhibition and Wan’s work are testimony to one of the city’s oldest industries. Shipbuilding used to be one of the most important local industries, as Macao was a city of seafarers. It was at its peak during the Sino-Japanese war in the 1940s. After Hong Kong fell, Macao became one of China’s major shipyards. Other industries profited from the boom.

In the 1950s, there were nearly 10,000 fishermen and more than 30 shipyards in Macao; the coastal villages were thriving and ocean was teeming with fish, crabs and oysters. It was during this era that Wan grew up.

Childhood with the sea

Wan was born in Macao in March 1948, the son of a fishing family. From his earliest years, the sea was in his blood; his family had its own small sampan.

“When my parents went fishing, they did not take me with them. I waited on shore in the care of an old lady in a wooden hut. They continued fishing until their retirement.”

“They also caught oysters. Macao had so many at that time, because the waters were not polluted. When they brought them back, we children helped to break them up and sell them. Mother and I had a market store selling the fresh ones. The ones that were not so fresh we sold to the oyster sauce factory; I was around seven years old then.”

The Wans was a large family so they could not afford to eat what they caught; they had to sell it.

Wan remembers the joys and disappoint-ments of fishing. “When we saw big fish in the nets, we were very happy. Once, we had a fish weighing more than 10 kilos – it shook its tail, breaking the net and escaping. When we were in a sampan, another way to catch fish was to drop a big bucket attached to a stone to the base of the sea, six or seven metres below; eels and crabs would crawl in and could not get out. When we returned, we simply lifted the bucket and found them. It required no effort.” This was the environment in which Wan grew up.

Macao had many shipyards which produced hand-crafted fishing boats made of wood. In addition to working on the sea, Wan’s father had a job in one of these yards, demolishing old boats; the work was all done by hand.

At the age of 14, Wan followed his father and his uncle into the business, with a monthly salary of 120 patacas. “I wanted also to learn how to construct boats but the owner of the shipyard did not want to teach me since he was only renting the site from someone else.”

Learning the trade

So he moved to another yard, for a monthly wage of only 20 patacas, and began his apprenticeship as a ship maker. He learnt like a duck taking to water. “After six months, the owner treated me as a skilled craftsman and doubled my salary. I was stronger and better than the others.”

At the age of 21, he was formally accredited as a shipbuilder, after the three-year training period, and could choose where to work.

“I went back to the shipyard where I had worked demolishing vessels. The owner assigned me to complete a half-built vessel. When the ship was close to completion, the boss fired me and laughed at me. I had to swallow my pride and applied elsewhere. It was not easy,” he said.

After that, he was more careful and cautious in his work. “I built up a reputation in the industry. I was known to be quick and could deliver work on time. The owners liked me. Usually, when a ship is nearly completed, an owner would lay off 5-6 out of the 15 workers. But I was not laid off. I regained my confidence.”

He also studied at night school, earning a professional diploma from Hong Kong University.  With this education and his professional skill, he was invited to join the Macao Association of Shipyard Workers (MASW), to represent them in negotiations with the owners. He agreed. “This was a new source of pressure. You have to work doubly hard, so as not to give the bosses a reason to say you are lazy and unqualified.”

But the industry was shrinking. From the 1970s, the market shifted to the mainland; local companies moved their operations there. Hand-crafted wooden junks took two months to make: metal boats were faster and more efficient.

“I was chairman of the union at the time and it was sad to see the industry disappearing on my watch,” said Wan. “Boat-making is a culture. Will the next generation even be aware of how boat-makers in Macao built boats?”

From shipbuilder to security guard

In 1980, he started a new job – a security guard at the Metropole Hotel, for a salary of 1,200 patacas a month. “They wanted someone with a trade union background. There were bonuses and double pay at the end of the year. I had married at 26 and needed a steady income for my family.” They have two children.

For three years, he left the shipbuilding world. Friends asked him if he wanted to set up a shipbuilding firm in the mainland. “We looked at the possibility. It is not easy for an outsider to enter this industry. We decided that it was too high risk. Fishermen place an order but do not pay cash. They may cancel, leaving some shipbuilders in debt.”

After completing three years at the Metropole, he was looking for work again. Friends introduced him back to the shipyard. “It was very hard at the beginning. I had got used to the air conditioning at the hotel. I gritted my teeth to swallow the hardship and persisted.”

In 1986, he was offered a full-time job at the Macau Federation of Union and remained there until his retirement in 2013. By then, the industry in Macao had died. The last shipyard, Lai Chi Van, completed its final vessel in 2005.

Making models

In his retirement, Wan was never going to sit in front of the television and play mahjong. He started to hand-craft miniature replicas of junks. “Boat-making is a traditional craft and I make them exactly the way you would a normal fishing boat, from the materials to the tools and techniques.” He spends about 120 hours on each one.

He made the first one as a gift to the doctor who operated on him at the age of 60, to remove a cancerous tumour. “I wanted to express my gratitude to him.”

Making the boats is noisy, so in April 2015 he moved from his house to a spot in Tap Seac square. It was there that a senior official of the Archives of Macao saw him and invited him to move his work place to its porch, out of the rain.

His new location brought him fame. Media, local and foreign, came to interview him and he was invited to do exhibitions. He works every day, precisely from 8.30 am to noon from 1 pm to 5 pm, paying for all the materials himself. He has so far made 17 sailing boats.

“The first two months were hard on my back and fingers but now I am accustomed to it. I make one boat a month and give them to friends and family. I had not made ships for 30 years but can remember everything. The models are exactly like the big ships. If given a layer of waterproof paint, they can actually sail in the sea.

“I make sailing boats because you do not see them any more anywhere in the sea. You start from the base then move to the head of the boat. It requires great skill and dexterity. Look, my finger is much bigger than a nail. It requires patience to do it well. Through my work, I want to send a message that a person, regardless of gender or age, can create value through work.”

He said that the boat he liked most was a little sampan that reminded him of the one his parents used to go out into the sea.  His models include shrimp-catching boats, those used in the Song dynasty to go to Southeast Asia and Portuguese cargo ships of the 15th century. “I learnt from books what they were like. The bottom of the boats was slightly different and made to suit the waters they navigated.”

“I do not do this for money. My two children look after themselves. I have the same schedule every day. I feel happy and recognised. Thanks to this work, my condition has improved since the operation. I have a sense of well-being.”

Museum of shipbuilding

To remember this important part of Macao’s past, the government tourism office has proposed turning the former Coloane docks into a museum.

In 2013, the Chan Yat Fund set up the non-profit History and Culture Association of the Port of Macao, to preserve and share this part of the city’s history. It organises shipbuilding exhibitions and tours of the inner harbour and provides oral history and educational seminars. (Macao Magazine, by Mark O’Neill)