Village ar­ti­sans strug­gle to keep boat­build­ing tra­di­tion afloat

China Daily (Canada) - - LIFE - By XUJINGXI xujingxi@chi­

Shangjiao village was bustling with the noise of drilling and ham­mer­ing in the week be­fore the Dragon Boat Fes­ti­val, or Duanwu Jie, which falls on June 9 this year as the mak­ers of boats put the fin­ish­ing touches to them ahead of the rac­ing sea­son.

After the work was fin­ished, the com­pleted tra­di­tional hand­made wooden ves­sels were pushed onto the wa­ter­way to the sound of fire­crack­ers that were lit for good luck.

Shangjiao village in the Panyu district of Guangzhou is one of the two ma­jor pro­duc­tion bases for tra­di­tional dragon boats in South China’s Guang­dong prov­ince, the other be­ing Zhong­tang town in Dong­guan.

It is a village with a his­tory of dragon boat pro­duc­tion dat­ing back 140 years and, along­side the boats from the Pearl River Delta area, its prod­ucts sell in the prov­inces of Hu­nan and Zhe­jiang, the Hong Kong and Ma­cao spe­cial ad­min­is­tra­tive re­gions and through­out South­east Asia.

The su­perb skills of the village’s dragon boat mas­ters were se­lected as the city’s in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural heritage last year and at­tract ad­mir­ers from thou­sands of miles away.

One buyer drove all the way from Zhe­jiang prov­ince to in­vite Lu Haoy­ing, one of the mas­ter crafts­men, to Wen­zhou in Zhe­jiang to build a dragon boat there, which ended up be­ing more than 10 sec­onds faster than boats made in Zhe­jiang’s work­shops.

The most de­mand­ing part of mak­ing a dragon boat is cut­ting the wood for the keel and sides of the boat, Lu­said.

“The cut­ting must be so pre­cise and smooth that even a thread of hair can­not get into the joint. We don’t use any glue to con­nect the pieces of wood,” he said.

It takes years for a boat­builder to grasp the secrets, but few young people to­day want to in­herit the skills their fa­thers and grand­fa­thers want to pass on.

Men wear­ing shirts soaked in sweat or barech­ested who work in the village’s shabby saw­dust­cov­ered work­shops are all mid­dle-aged. Many are even gray-haired.

“The job is ex­haust­ing and not well-paid,” said Huang Shan­qing, 73, who has been work­ing at his fam­ily fac­tory since 1980. “And there are only four months in the year when you are likely to re­ceive or­ders. It is not a good job in­many young people’s eyes.”

Huang works us­ing skills

Mak­ing dragon boats by hand is a pre­cious tra­di­tional skill that should never die out.”

man­ager of the Chen Han­hui Dragon Boat Fac­tory

passed down from his grand­fa­ther. But he fell ill last year after hav­ing been di­ag­nosed two years ago with Parkin­son’s dis­ease. Since then, his hands have not stopped shak­ing. To carry on the fac­tory’s work, he pulled his son away from his peanut oil busi­ness and pressed him into work mak­ing dragon boats.

But it seems to be a busi­ness that has left its best days in its wake. Boat pro­duc­tion in the village reached its peak dur­ing the 1980s and 1990s, es­pe­cially after Guangzhou launched its international dragon boat race in 1994. Then, the 30 or so work­shops in the village pro­duced hun­dreds of boats a year.

But there are fewer than 10 work­shops left to­day, thanks to a fall in or­ders that boat builders at­tribute to the fi­nan­cial cri­sis and the lim­ited space avail­able for dragon boat rac­ing be­cause of the city’s ex­pan­sion into the ru­ral ar­eas.

Water pol­lu­tion has also played a part in the de­cline of the sport, ac­cord­ing to Yi Wen, man­ager of the Chen Han­hui Dragon Boat Fac­tory, which is the largest in Shangjiao village.

The pri­vately-owned fac­tory used to pro­duce be­tween 30 and 50 boats a year but cur­rently re­ceives fewer than 20 or­ders dur­ing the same time­frame.

Yi, 48, be­gan work at a State-owned dragon boat fac­tory when he was 13 in the hope of learn­ing skills that would stand him in good stead for the rest of his life. To­day, he feels un­der pres­sure to keep his fac­tory run­ning and con­tinue em­ploy­ing tra­di­tional boat­mak­ing skills.

“Mak­ing dragon boats by hand is a pre­cious tra­di­tional skill that should never die out,” he said. “I will hold on as long as I can, but I can’t force young people to take over my job. We need fi­nan­cial sup­port from the gov­ern­ment, and we also hope they will or­ga­nize more dragon boat races to en­gage more people so they take part in the sport and re­vive the tra­di­tion.”

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