Frowning in painstaking concentration as he chisels Chinese images and characters onto mahjong tiles, 70-year-old Cheung Shun-king is one of the last artisans of his kind in Hong Kong. Hand carving game tiles for the popular Chinese game was once a source of income for many, but the introduction of much cheaper machine-made sets has reduced their clientele and made their work a rarity.
Cheung’s family alone owned four separate stores, where as a teenager he learned his trade.
Now there is only one left.
“I gave my youth there,” he says of his work. “I don’t know if I will have the energy to continue in a few years, but for now I will continue to do so.”
Cheung’s store is on a street lined with mahjong parlors, but none of them buy his tiles from him.
“My mahjong sets are expensive,” he admits.
A full set of hand-carved tiles costs HK$5,500 (US$700), while machine-carved ones cost around HK$2,000.
The price reflects the time spent making them.
Industrial tile production takes about an hour, but it takes Cheung five days to complete the process of carving and coloring his tiles.
Many of her customers buy sets as keepsakes and often request custom images.
But Cheung thinks this recent revival of interest in an old tradition may be fleeting.
“It’s only been a few years since people felt a sense of nostalgia” and came to buy his tiles, he says.
“What if a few years later nobody felt nostalgia?”
Despite his belief that his industry will continue to decline, Cheung says he will work as long as he can, until there is no more demand.
He ran workshops for young people but did not want to take on apprentices because of his pessimism.
“Learning (this skill) isn’t a matter of one or two months – trying it wouldn’t work if you don’t dive into it for two to three years,” Cheung says.
“If, by then, handcrafted mahjong tiles are out of fashion, then this skill would become useless.”
Cheung doesn’t know how to play mahjong himself – his interest is only in making the tiles.
He says being called an artist, however, is flattering and a “big compliment” for him.
“If others say it’s art, then it’s art. For me, it’s my job, because I have to earn a living.”
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