Co­conut carver

Give this man a co­conut and he will soon present you with a master­piece. Liu Xiaoli and Ma Zhip­ing in Haikou re­port.

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tact the writer at li­ux­i­aoli@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Zhang Xingfu, 72, has been turn­ing co­conut shells into art­work for more than 50 years.

Zhang Xingfu, 72, usu­ally starts his day by carv­ing a co­conut shell at 8 am, sit­ting near the win­dow with knife and shell in hands, some­thing he has been do­ing for the past 50 years.

In fact, Zhang, a mas­ter of co­conut car v - ing in Haikou, Hainan prov­ince, could sit in his chair with­out leav­ing it un­til mid­noon, so ab­sorbed is he with the mat­ter at hand.

Zhang, who was in­ter­ested in draw­ing as a young­ster, started to learn co­conut carv­ing when he was 13. He was paid just 15 yuan a month, he says, but he was happy.

“I didn’t care about the pay. I was just happy that I was learn­ing some­thing that was re­lated to draw­ing.”

He had to learn how to peel and pol­ish co­conuts and how to draw be­fore he fi­nally got into the process of carv­ing, and it was three years be­fore he could turn out his first work.

The job ca l ls for great pa­tience – which is per­fect for Zhang, who sees him­self as a very pa­tient man – and it takes about a month to pro­duce a sin­gle carv­ing.

The fac­tory Zhang first worked in re­ceived many or­ders be­fore the 1980s, and most were tourist sou­venirs. But Zhang con­sid­ered that there was more to his craft than that, and he stud­ied hard with his teachers Lin Shix­ian, Gao Yusheng and Chen Yi­jin, renowned co­conut carv­ing masters in Hainan.

The ded­i­ca­tion paid off when Zhang was cho­sen to work on two vases made from co­conut shells that the gov­ern­ment of Hainan was to present to Ma­cao as a gift in 1999. Zhang was one of just 300 work­ers cho­sen to work on the project.

“It was a great honor and I was ex­tremely proud,” Zhang says.

Those in the craft re­gard the two vases, 1.99 me­ters high, with a max­i­mum di­am­e­ter of 800 cen­time­ters, and weigh­ing 80 kilo­gram each, as master­pieces. They are made from 5,200 co­conut shells of sim­i­lar color and lus­ter, and about 32,000 sweet-scented os­man­thus and 60,000 grains of sand form part of the fin­ished vases.

“We spent the whole year on those two vases,” Zhang says.

With those two works, Zhang’s fame in the craft was as­sured.

The Hainan gov­ern­ment also gave one of Zhang’s works as a gift to Singapore’s prime min­is­ter, Lee Hsien Loong, in 2013.

Ten years ear­lier, Zhang had left the carv­ing fac­tory but re­mained de­voted to his craft.

“The fac­tory shut down and most of the work­ers moved on to other things,” he says. “Only a few are still co­conut carvers.”

Zhang has been in­vited to var­i­ous cities and coun­ties in Hainan to teach young peo­ple the craft, and at one stage he had a shop in Haikou in which he gave lessons free of charge. How­ever, he was forced to close the shop af­ter a year be­cause the rent was too oner­ous.

Zhang has had many stu­dents from far and wide, in­clud­ing over­seas, over the years, but most have even­tu­ally given up, he says.

“You can’t re­ally pass on your carv­ing skills that eas­ily, and it is dif­fi­cult to make enough money to make ends meet, es­pe­cially if you have a fam­ily to sup­port. Still, I re­ally want the craft to con­tinue, so I am will­ing to teach any­one who is will­ing to learn.”

This year Zhang, never too old to learn, went to Suzhou, Jiangsu prov­ince, to learn some­thing more about his craft.

“I got the chance to work with a pro­fes­sional draw­ing teacher, and it helped me a lot. Draw­ing is the es­sen­tial skill in co­conut carv­ing.”

Now that his two chil­dren have grown up he can de­vote him­self even more to carv­ing, he says.

Co­conut carv­ing is re­garded as a low-cost craft com­pared with sculp­ture and other forms of art. Zhang says he got his carv­ing knives 59 years ago, and for them to be ef­fec­tive all he needs to do is sharpen them from time to time.

Co­conut shells can eas­ily be bought at the mar­ket for about 5 yuan (70 cents) each, and he is ex­pert at dis­cern­ing the best ones in terms of shape, color and hard­ness.

“But the per­fect co­conut shell is like a once-in-a-life­time chance, a one in a mil­lion hap­pen­ing.”

Shop own­ers have a good idea of Zhang’s needs and make a point of sav­ing co­conuts with any un­usual shape for him. In his home he has about 30 of his own works, and peo­ple have of­fered good money for them, but Zhang has turned them down.

“These are fam­ily trea­sures and not for sale,” Zhang says.

And in the mas­ter crafts­man him­self, his son Zhang Min­jie sees a trea­sure.

“I ad­mire my fa­ther and am proud of him. There is al­ways some­thing I can learn from him.”

You can’t re­ally pass on your carv­ing skills that eas­ily, and it is dif­fi­cult to make enough money to make ends meet... Still, I re­ally want the craft to con­tinue, so I am will­ing to teach any­one who is will­ing to learn.” Zhang Xingfu, co­conut carv­ing mas­ter

PHO­TOS BY LIU XIAOLI / CHINA DAILY

Top: Zhang Xingfu says he got his carv­ing knives 59 years ago, and for them to be ef­fec­tive all he needs to do is sharpen them from time to time. Left: A work of Zhang. Above: Co­conut carv­ing calls for great pa­tience and some­times Zhang can sit in his chair with­out leav­ing it from 8 am to mid-noon.

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