The tide of local carpentry

Wong Tin Yan and Roy Ng both studied in art school. Wong is a local artist who uses wood as a creative medium, while tRoy is a full-time carpenter. Being woodworkers, they established ‘Fabricators HK’. The following is their witness of the changes and development of the carpentry industry in Hong Kong.

1960s and before: Woodwork as a daily necessity

Before the era of mechanised production, almost every item in our daily life was produced by hand. There were different woodworking specialists producing solid wood furniture across Hong Kong. Handmade woodware was very common. It could be tailored and offered at flexible pricing. Speaking of the past, Roy recalled what a teacher had once said, “If there was a bespoke order to make wooden chairs for the entire hotel, would you be able to handle it?” Thus one can see that there was a huge market for wood-making back then. At that time, there were wood factories of different scales in Hong Kong, even the woodworking machinery was made locally.

1980-1990: The shift of manufacturing industries to mainland and the rise of fast furniture

In the mid-to-late 80s, China’s economic reform had brought about the relocation of production lines due to its low production cost. Roy nodded and said, “I grew up at a time when Hong Kong had already lost all of its wood factories. Teachers back then said that Hong Kong’s development was mostly driven by tertiary industries. No one wanted to do manufacturing in Hong Kong.” In contrast, the service, finance and property industries grew vigorously.

“In the meantime, there was an influx of foreign brands entering the market in both Hong Kong and mainland, among them was the famous Scandinavian homeware brand (founded in Hong Kong in the mid 70s), which gave rise to the trend of self-assembly furniture kits.” added Tin Yan. There were still traditional furniture shops around, but the demand for bespoke handcrafted furniture fell drastically. With its affordable prices and flexibility, self-assembly furniture was indeed more favourable to people who lived in small flats. “At that time, the pace of the city had already quickened, people tended to move around rather than living in the same household for years; and the same for business too. Short-term rentals deterred people from investing in the interior decor. They preferred simple furnishing over intricate mythical animal sculptural designs like phoenix and dragon.”

Moreover, there was an increasing number of woodware products from China. With its advancing export operation, Hong Kong’s woodcraft masters were dubbed a more general term: decorators. Tin Yan said, “In the 2000s, some ‘decorators’ became contractors. They would meet clients with a steel tape measure, marking the size of bespoke furniture and then let the manufacturers in Shenzhen do the rest. When the finished product was delivered to Hong Kong, they would just do some minor repairs or final assembly.”

2000s to present: The makers culture and the rise of multifarious woodwork

With the widespread use of broadband technology and the emergence of the online video social platform Youtube in 2005, an era of online learning began. Roy said that was how he started to take carpentry seriously. “I saw on the Internet that many foreigners were doing carpentry in their back garden, and that made me realise what I truly longed for. After finishing art school, I wanted to explore how I could develop a career in woodworking.”

Later, this DIY spirit and makers culture spread to Hong Kong and very soon there was a trend of making things with your own hands. Roy admitted that if broadband had not been invented, they would not have discovered innovative tools. “We used to look for new tools in books or hardware stores, but the Internet has allowed us to discover a range of foreign equipment and learned that there are so many ways to do woodwork. You can even learn them yourself online.”

In earlier days, youngsters from art and design schools, whether local or overseas, wanted to pursue a career in carpentry. They formed different woodworking groups and established their own brands, blending handcraft and machinery to create unique and distinctive woodware products. Owing to their willingness to educate the public about carpentry skills by holding workshops of different scales, woodworking has flourished beyond its functional aspect and become a leisure activity or hobby, making the expertise more approachable and appreciated.

The future of local carpentry: To become exquisite craftsmanship or an everyday expertise?

In the past, the streets were filled with woodworking workshops of different sizes. Now, the industry seems to be slowly moving towards the direction of high-end homeware products and exquisite pieces. The backgrounds of woodworkers are becoming more diverse. When it comes to the future development of the carpentry industry in Hong Kong, the first thing woodworking specialists have to overcome is the skyrocketing rent and expensive machinery, which are making the investment cost high. Furthermore, confined living and rental space are also limiting the scale of woodwork production.

Tin Yan claimed that woodworking is craftsmanship. “It requires a consistent cycle of demand and supply to sustain its development. Reflecting on the lack of diversity in Hong Kong’s economic development, I think the major proposition is our current values. Under capitalism, everything is a monetary race. Goods with the cheapest price get to dominate the market. If money continues to be the only indicator, nothing can be done.”

What we need to consider is how to let carpentry become part of our lives again. If it doesn’t connect to our living, it’ll only become an object of worship and admiration. “When we talk about traditional craftsmanship, it wasn’t a tradition in the past, but a skill that had a function in our living. Nowadays we like to glorify the rareness of such handiwork that was once an everyday skill.”

Tin Yan brooded and said, “I believe there are only two ways. One, we could take the craft to a more refined level. Making exquisite woodcraft that only the privileged can afford. A single bespoke order would probably be enough to get by for several years. Another way, we could try the so-called smart production method. Some of the manufacturing procedures may be done elsewhere. As long as you have a digital file, you can have the product manufactured anywhere in the world. Just that everyone is pondering whether Hong Kong still has the presence to attract foreigners carrying their digital files to come for production deals.”