I graduated from the Fine Arts Department of The Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2000. During that year, everyone was busy with the graduation show, fretting about how to present ourselves via our artwork in this final stage of our college years. However, I was never serious about my studies in those three years. Always skiving off lectures to play in the courts, I was ignorant of artwork creation. Without a flair for any medium such as painting, installation, photography and multimedia, it was impossible for me to create artwork for the graduation show. Fortunately, life always has the best arrangement for you. Towards the end of the semester, many maintenance projects were about to begin. Many wooden pallets used in the delivery of maintenance materials were found discarded around campus. The wood surface, gleaming with the hardships of life, induced a firm and substantial disposition that enticed me. Along with its easy availability and free cost, these favourable factors finally aroused my desire to create. After two small experiments, with a few pallets and discarded splints, I assembled a one-eyed dinosaur monster that looked like a puppy in a urinating posture as my graduation work. Due to its size and the complicated procedures of transporting from the sculpture room situated on the mountain top to the exhibition venue, the assembling method was also considered in the process of making. To ensure its stability, without any basic knowledge of woodworking, I just relied on common sense and drew inspiration from my experience of building lego blocks as a child. Working through all kinds of accessibling methods, such as nails and screws, simple mortise joints, I simply thought with my hands and let my fingers take the lead. Amidst that, I discovered a pure sense of joy, and that gave rise to a new set of creative approaches and habits, which I have now attuned to for 20 years.
After graduation, my friend proposed to rent a village house as a shared studio. Without much forethought, we settled into a historic tile-roofed ancestral house in Yuen Leng Village in Tai Po. That year, with limited pallets found, my work was mostly assembled by discarded furniture, such as wardrobes, drawers, wood hangers, and tree chunks of different sizes. Thus, in terms of shape and structure, work from this period tends to differ from those completed with pallets from industrial buildings later on. In 2001, after the 1997 handover, the industrial sector shifted to the mainland and hence many industrial buildings in the New Territories were left vacant. In light of this, owing to inconvenient transport and insufficient space of our place, we moved into our current studio in Fo Tan along with our junior alumni. Looking back, considering the fact that I have only moved three times in the last two decades, things have been going well for me.
As mentioned above, having engaged with discarded wood (mainly pallets) in my artistic creation by coincidence, I tended to favour an improvisational and childlike approach to my work. There was neither a unique artistic concept nor superb woodworking skills at all. However, due to the nature of the materials used in my work, I was inevitably labelled as either a recycling fanatic or animal lover by the media. Driven by their expectation, I have been collecting and mapping information on wood waste in Hong Kong and integrating the findings into my workshops, in hope to inspire reflection on our values among students. The following is my findings:
Hong Kong’s wood waste is mainly divided into three categories: fallen trees or trees that need to be felled, discarded wood furniture and wood pallets. Unlike paper, plastic and metal, there is no recycling pickup point. With its weight and volume, wood waste has occupied most of the space in landfills, which has become one of the most challenging problems. According to a feature report by Ming Pao Weekly in 2012, the amount of wood waste sent to landfills every year is 438,000 metric tons. In other words, there are 36,500 metric tons per month. If you divide the figure by 30 days, there are more than 1,200 metric tons per day. That is equivalent to the weight of about 1,000 private cars. By 2015, the numbers surveyed by the media were roughly the same, but what was worth the attention was the number of recycled waste. At that time, the total weight of recycled wood waste for a whole year was only about the total weight discarded in one day, which was merely a drop in the ocean.
In 2018 when typhoon Mangkhut hit the city, the public was shocked by the amount of fallen trees and wood waste, which triggered the Environmental Protection Department and the Highways Department to set new requirements and respectively readjust policies on the treatment of felled trees in construction sites and the removal of roadside mature trees. This has brought new opportunities for the local woodworking industry. The Tuen Mun T.Park that I was involved in back in 2016 was a great example of reinventing with wood waste. The project began with the need of recycling waste materials from the Wan Chai pier. With the help of artists and designers, the venue was designed with refurbished and upcycled facilities that blended well with the community, winning several overseas awards for its outstanding design. The most crucial challenge for the project was to find a local wood factory who would be willing to process the pier’s wood waste that was covered with oyster shells, iron nails and metal fasteners. Fortunately, Chi Kee Sawmill & Timber, a local wood factory situated in the northeast of the New Territories, which fell under the proposal of land acquisition, offered to help. Through a series of twists and turns, we have learned that the issues involved with waste wood recycling range from legal regulations, collecting and processing, production to community awareness and levels of acceptance from the public. We need to join the dots together, otherwise we would end up like the former pallet upcycling business in EcoPark, which had closed due to insufficient waste supply. The very lack of strategic coordination of policies is the major reason behind the absurdity of its closure.
In recent years, due to the establishment of government subsidies, two wood upcycling organizations, Life Behind the Tree and Hong Kong Timber Bank, have emerged. (Coincidentally, the two founders are both junior alumni of the Fine Arts Department of CUHK). Their introduction of large machinery and flexible thinking addressed some of the efficiency issues in wood waste processing, which also gave rise to an advancement in practicality. Along with other mixed materials, a series of upcycled wood products were invented, ranging from cat litter, fillings for garden beds to plywood for constructional use, all of which have been widely accepted by the market. The favourable outcome has shone a light on the wood upcycling industry.
When the raw materials, labour, machinery and industrial links are all set, the next issue that we need to address is our values. Being one of the sustainable natural resources on earth, wood plays an important role in our lives. Predecessors planted trees so that later generations can enjoy the coolness they bring. Whether it is trees that are planted around, or wood that is converted into products or creative pursuits, they always nourish our soul. Nowadays our values have been distorted under the influence of capitalism. With market prices becoming increasingly competitive, mass-produced products tend to be favoured for their low prices. On the contrary, the cost of producing recycled wood products already exceeds public expectations. Thus, if we failed to educate consumers about the value of environmental protection, it would be impossible to sustain the industry. Education plays a key role in promoting the recycling of wood waste, but first we need to have someone who is knowledgeable enough and who is willing to teach. Where can we find these people? From college? From self-study?
No matter what kind of woodworking creation you engage in, with the city’s land problem, the industry faces the challenge of overcoming a series of issues, such as the storage of materials and tools, the noise and wood chips generated during production. In the last two decades, apart from Fo Tan, Kwun Tong, Chai Wan, Kwai Chung, and San Po Kong, as long as there are industrial buildings with cheap rents, carpentry enthusiasts of different ages will emerge. This includes The Cave Workshop, the design team which I met early on that also debuted with wood waste; Start From Zero, which specialises in combining street art and woodworking; Saturn Wood Workshop, which is run by two female graduates from Baptist University; Woodrite, a social enterprise that works with wood specialists on recycling; Coutou Woodworking Studio, which cooperates with senior carpenters. There are also studios that adopt a more multidisciplinary and playful style, which include Chipgoodguy Studio; Twenty One from Eight, a lifestyle retail that combines catering and bespoke furniture service;
Ryan, who specialises in wooden toys design; Ken, who returned to Hong Kong and founded the Yat Muk Studio based on his woodworking experience in China and Taiwan; and my junior Roy Ng, who started as a production assistant for galleries and exhibitions, and has accumulated over 10 years experience of handling abandoned trees, CNC and laser cutting, which prepared him for the opportunity of becoming the Hong Kong agent of a large-scale table circular saw of a European brand. Lastly, one must not forget to mention the change of the online world.
With the advancement of the Internet and social platforms, not only has the circulation and popularity of carpentry-related information greatly increased, coupled with the blessing of big data, the opportunities of connecting with similar expertise have also grown significantly. Whether it is local, in Asian or on a global scale, all carpentry-related pictures, videos, tools, or related product promotions proliferated online all at once, surpassing the influence of books and magazines. With technology and virtual realities dominating the lives of today’s generation, many schools have become more interested in activities that involve physical operations such as handicrafts. It has become the norm for external parties or organizations to hold workshops in schools. Many grant programs, such as the Jockey Club Charity Trust Fund, have emerged and played a significant role in supporting the inheritance of woodworking, as well as other cultural expertise and heritage crafts. Therefore it is evident that the public has become more aware of the woodworking industry in Hong Kong when compared to 20 years ago, and the attention is likely to grow.
To conclude, this fleeting spotlight is not enough to nourish the development of the wood waste recycling and woodworking industry. From land and housing policies, standard working hours, retirement insurance, the diverse values promoted in education to the freedom from fear, all of these factors contribute to how Hong Kong people perceive craftsmanship, lifestyle and the future. Despite having more subsidies, constructive change would be impossible if the empty talk of how the city will benefit from integrating into the Greater Bay Area, the incessant armchair strategies and unsustaining industrial policies continued to pervade. Whether it is recycling or craftsmanship, what is needed most is not only a pair of hands, but also a ‘heart’—a pure intention.