A Crafty Way to Revisit Childhood

The Joy of Making Things by Hand

2020 / January

Tina Xie /photos courtesy of Lin Min-hsuan /tr. by Jonathan Barnard

Workshops that teach how to make things by hand are all the rage. Artisans and craftspeople can often be found offering lessons in department stores and outdoor markets. This growing trend of gaining hands-on experience with craft techniques reflects changing attitudes about tradi­tional crafts in Taiwan.

At Taichung’s elegant Chung Yo Department Store, shoppers are quietly and leisurely perusing the exquis­ite products arrayed on the racks and shelves—up until the sound of wooden blocks knocking against each other pierces the tranquility. A few hours later, a group of women, their clothes speckled with wood shavings and their hands clutching wooden stools, leave the store with an air of satisfaction.   

Craft workshops gain in popularity

In mid-July of 2019, Chung Yo partnered with the Taiwan School of Arts & Crafts to stage a ten-day “Crafts Experience Expo,” which offered 200 classes in various fields. In contrast to the rushed monotony experienced in every­day consumerism, these courses promised the joy of learning and the warmth of handmade products. Offering something new, the expo was well attended.

“Workshops led by craftspeople will be more and more common,” says Chen Minghui, the founder of the Taiwan School of Arts & Crafts. Although the public today still largely thinks of artisans in terms of the products they make, the experiential classes that they offer will become an increasingly important part of their professional futures. The change heralds the trans­forma­tion of the craft industry in Taiwan from traditional manufacturing toward knowledge-based services.

Bringing the five senses to education

To help lead this transformation and give the younger generation a better understanding of the beauty of arts and crafts, Chen founded the Taiwan School of Arts & Crafts in 2017. He seeks to match schools with master practitioners, so that next genera­tion can gain an understanding of the joy and value found in crafts as part of their regular education.

“Have you ever seen sap dripping out of wood?” asks a smiling Chen. In hands-on experiential classes, students don’t merely listen to monotonous instructions about how to put things together, and they don’t only experience dry wood. Instead, they also hear the sound of wood being split apart, and they handle lumber so freshly cut that it still has its bark. Through sound, they learn to judge the special qualities of wood. Through smell, they take in its strong scent. Through touch, they feel the texture of wood—whether its grain and fibers are fine or coarse. For woodworking classes that engage the five senses, the goal, rather than to acquire professional training, is to experience a feast for the senses and the mind.

Traditional crafts to experiential services

This transformation of crafts in Taiwan has also had an impact on traditional factories, which are increasingly offering experiential and educational activities. Located near the Duoliang train station in Taitung County’s Taimali Township, Sunrise Driftwood Workshop was established in the wake of 2009’s Typhoon Morakot to deal with the problem of driftwood brought down from mountain forests by the storm. In the decade since, the workshop’s orientation toward commercial production has proven to be problematic. It is located at a distance both from wood supplies and from furniture markets, and once transport costs are deducted, profits from its goods are meager. Inspired by the experience economy, the facility has gradually turned into a base for craft workshops and the creation of teaching materials.

“There is a wooded area out back, and it’s an excellent source of teaching materials for woodworking classes.” Chen explains that although little timber suitable for making furniture grows around Duoliang, the area has an abundance of wood that can be used as educational material for shop classes in schools. And workshops can draw on local stories and special character­istics, thereby giving consumers unique experiences.

“Recently we’ve received invitations from many shopping malls and markets, but we’ve been busy bringing craftspeople to schools and working with Chung Yo Department Store on major craft education events, so we can only go to those venues about once a year.” Clearly, the market has already discovered that “hands-on experi­ence” is a good line of business. More than just means to products, crafts provide unforgettable experiences that engage the senses and satisfy people’s desire for knowledge.

Childhood pleasures revisited

Fun-Maker, located in a back street in Taipei’s Neihu District, has this kind of charm. It draws people from afar, both Taiwanese and foreigners, who come ­specially to visit this small shop to reacquaint themselves with the sense of peace, joy and achievement that comes from making things by hand.

Fun-Maker is a workshop that makes use of laser cutting technology. Most of its products are wooden utensils, including wooden guns that are used as props in films, as well as lamps, clocks, picnic baskets and boomboxes that are used in daily life.

“Hi!” Joan Yang, one of Fun-Maker’s two owners, smiles as she walks out unhurriedly to greet us with a pot of freshly brewed tea. Much wood is used in the shop’s interior design, and it, along with the hot, fragrant tea, creates a warm atmosphere in the softly lit space. Still smiling, Yang points to the photographs that cover the walls and says, “They represent our customers’ memories, and our own.” They feature people young and old. There are Taiwanese, as well as travelers hailing from Hong Kong, Macao, Malaysia and other countries. All of them reveal bright smiles as they pose with their creations. 

Co-owner Mac Yu, Yang’s husband, shyly takes a wooden gun off the opposite wall. After giving a simple explanation of how it operates, he aims at a wooden figurine on the table, and with a whack the figurine topples over. It is quite startling. The guns on the wall all use rubber bands for “bullets.” Yu doesn’t say much, but as he gives a quick introduction to each of his proud creations, his eyes fill with eager excitement. His newest contrivance is a submachine gun equipped with a motor, which emits a steady stream of rubber bands even as you move your aim.   

Cleverly designed experiences

“Our product is experiences,” says Yang, who believes that Fun-Maker is best positioned to give its customers a chance to take time for themselves to enjoy the act of creation, rather than just to focus on finishing an item. In order to create experiences, everything about the shop—from the décor that customers see, to the tea that they taste and the aprons that they wear—has been designed with great consideration to foster a homey atmosphere. Yang stays attentive to customers’ needs. Some want to enjoy time alone, whereas others want to chat. She takes whatever approach is appropriate, and her attention to detail has won the hearts of customers. One Hong Kong tourist, visiting for the second time, says excitedly, “I missed you and your tea so much!”

Despite having a capacity for eight students at once, Fun-Maker can also meet the needs of those who want to work on their own and enjoy time alone. Consequently, there are customers who regularly book the space for themselves on their birthdays, gifting themselves some alone time on an important day.

Here everyone can choose for themselves what wooden object to make, creating special pieces that are uniquely theirs. One military officer who was being sent to the United States for training came here to make a Winchester rifle and a P90 submachine gun. She then took them with her to give to her American friends. One girl’s family ran a general store on Orchid Island. With the opening of the island’s first convenience store, she decided to study laser cutting in order to create special local souvenirs that will help her family’s store withstand the competition. 

Every customer has a different reason for coming through the door, but “each adult turns into a child while they’re here.” Laughing, Joan Yang says that Mac Yu’s designs have a certain charm that makes every customer who comes into the store regain the heart of a child. Unafraid of what people might think, a university professor even participated in a winter electric circuit camp put on for children. Reexperiencing the joys of a boombox, he is eagerly anticipating making many more of his own objects.

Value beyond the product crafted

After seeing the kudos that Fun-Maker has earned, many people have suggested that it sell materials in craft kits, but Yu and Yang believe that so doing would disrespect the efforts of designers and undervalue the importance of skills and creativity. Consequently, they insist upon focusing on education and experience, and teaching basic mechanical principles before encouraging people to unleash their own creativity.

Hidden in the busy city and attracting both local and foreign customers for five years now, this small shop is a place where a married couple has realized its dreams. They hope that all their customers will feel a homey warmth here and will want to come back time and again. They also hope that people will come to know that Taiwan’s maker movement includes not only those skilled in building robots, but also many who have mastered more traditional craft skills.    

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