The Reborn Mahjong Artisan in Hong Kong
Last month in October, Ms. Leung Yuk-hing, who is now 90 years old, shared the story of how she and her husband started the "Fuk Hing Lung Mahjong Factory" in its early days, as well as the operations of the hand-carved mahjong tile factory and Hong Kong mahjong manufacturing industry from the 1950s to 1970s.
Photo Credit: Darkside
The second artisan to join this series of interviews in November is Mr. Cheung Sing Chung. As the second-generation successor of the Cheung family, Master Cheung was the helmsman of the "Fuk Hing Lung Mahjong Factory" before his retirement. In recent years, he has continued to study the craftsmanship of hand-carving mahjong tiles as a mahjong artisan.
During the interview, Master Cheung started sharing his childhood memories growing up in Kowloon Walled City, his personal interests, and then he felt when taking over the "Fuk Hing Lung Mahjong Factory" at the age of 18. Thanks Master Cheung to give us a detailed record of the prosperity of the mahjong manufacturing industry, as part of Hong Kong old
story, as well as the rapid decline of such labor industry.
Photo Credit: Darkside
We are fortunate to have an interview with Master Cheung, the father of Karen, for a wide-ranging talk about old Hong Kong feature and the traditional hand carving mahjong industry, and how, with his daughter, he is trying to preserve this lost art for future generations. Read the full version of interview here.
Photo Credit: Rensis Ho
Master Cheung, could you please share some stories about your childhood living in Sai Tau Tsuen 西頭村 and Shing Nam Road, Kowloon City in Hong Kong?
Sai Tau Tsuen was the main route to enter and exit Kowloon Walled City (九龍城寨), so it was a very bustling area. The first Fuk Hing Lung Mahjong Factory was located on Shing Lung Street in Sai Tau Tsuen. Other than a dentist, there were many eateries nearby. Also, there were lumber yards, electroplating factories, blacksmith shops, spray painting shops etc. around our storefront. Interestingly, most of the residents on the street gave birth to baby boys. So, there was a popular saying back then: "If you wish to have boys, go live on Shing Lung Street!"
Later, due to the strong acidic smell from the nearby electroplating factories, my parents kept looking for opportunities to move. The year Typhoon Wendy hit Hong Kong, we moved to Shing Nam Road. At that time, apart from my father, there were several coworkers and apprentices helping out at the mahjong factory. In those days, we calculated wages by tile. Polishing, cutting, carving, coloring - each process had its own rate. Some co-workers even slept at the factory.
Source: Information Services Department
When did you start helping your father at the mahjong factory? Was it difficult to study while learning to hand carve mahjong tiles?
I probably started getting involved with hand carving mahjong tiles when I was about 10 years old. At first it was just curiosity that made me try helping out with coloring the tiles. Then I started observing the masters carving tiles. I began by learning to carve the circles, then the bamboo, then the characters. The circles were relatively easier, but other more complex designs were quite difficult. After all, it takes skill to control the carving knife -applying the right amount of force while twisting the wrist. Looking back, it took at least a year of diligent practice before I grasped the techniques for carving tiles. At first, I could only carve certain designs. It took experience before I could handle hand-carving a full set of mahjong.
Did you prepare to take over the family business from an early age?
It was a natural transition. I didn't fully complete my apprenticeship, but my father's health wasn't good so I started managing the factory around 18 years old. After getting my driver's license, to save costs I drove the van to deliver orders with my younger brother. The van could hold over 100 sets of mahjong tiles! We usually waited until we had a certain volume before making a delivery run, 2-3 nights a week after work. To cross the harbour, we had to drive to Kwun Tong Pier, Kowloon City Pier or Jordan Road Pier and take the "car ferry" to deliver orders to Aberdeen, Chai Wan, Central etc.
Our clients at the time were mainly clubs, restaurants, hotels and mahjong parlors. Banquets often involved many tables of mahjong before the dinner. Sometimes in a rush before the event started, the mahjong tiles would be dumped together in the case, and
we would be asked to help sort them back into complete sets.
What was the mahjong tile carving industry like at its peak?
Back then, ‘Fuk Hing Lung’ and ‘Yee Keung’ in Tai Kok Tsui were the two biggest mahjong factories in Hong Kong, each with about half the market share in the ‘B2B’ industries.
Whenever a new club, restaurant or hotel opened, they would approach us to make tiles. At peak times we produced 20-30 sets a day. When the tiles were worn out, customers would return them to us. We would cook them to remove the paint, then carve them into a new set. It only cost a few tens of dollars to refresh a set. Each set could be refreshed 4-5 times at most.
There were many hand carving mahjong masters in Hong Kong at that time. Each master crafted their own unique font. You could often recognize which master a set came from just by looking at the lettering. The masters would study each other's carving techniques. There was a "Mahjong Craftsmen's Union". We held annual dinners and trips together.
Why did Fuk Hing Lung use German-made material to produce mahjong tiles?
It was an accidental discovery, mainly through an introduction by a trading company. "German style" material was very popular at the time, but there was also a cheap imitation from China. The imitation material had an acidic smell and turned yellow easily,
making it hard to refresh. Real German material was much whiter and easier to polish. It stayed white even after multiple refreshing cycles. Since real German material was rare - a shipment came only once every 3-4 months. There were slight color variations between batches, so customers could only come to us for refurbishing their existing sets. Besides ‘Fuk Hing Lung’, ‘Yee Keung’ were the only two factories that imported real German material.
Why did your family briefly move to Aruba, and then decide to return to Hong Kong?
My mother-in-law ran a Western restaurant in Aruba and needed more manpower. My wife and I went to help out. I worked as a chef too! My younger brother took over managing the mahjong factory temporarily. We were in Aruba for almost a year, but felt the pace of life didn't suit us. Also, we were concerned about our daughter Karen's education there, which wouldn’t compare with the Hong Kong system if we decided to stay long-term, so we returned to Hong Kong after a short time.
Why did Fuk Hing Lung relocate to Kowloon Bay in the early 90s? I heard you started developing machine-assisted production then. What was that like?
Before our family's brief moved to Aruba, the business was quite good. We expanded the factory and hired more staff, so we outgrew our Shing Nam Road premises. After moving to Kowloon Bay, we switched to hiring drivers for deliveries. That allowed me to spend more time and effort on increasing our productivity.
We already used sanding machines to flatten tiles at the Shing Nam Road factory. But other machine-assisted processes were only introduced after moving to Kowloon Bay. Most importantly, we hired a new coworker who brought a lever-operated carving machine he had designed. The other masters still used manual carving for refurbishing old sets.
We purchased existing machines, then modified them for our factory's needs. This is how we developed the "water grinding machine" and "tile cutting machine". With machine assistance, our productivity increased tremendously.
When did Fuk Hing Lung's business start declining, and why?
Around 2000, factory-produced mahjong tiles and automated mahjong tables from China became prevalent. Most of our customers switched to automated tables. A full set of tiles and table cost only HKD500 - much cheaper than refurbishing. Only a small number of customers still ordered new sets or refurbished their sets irregularly. With fewer orders, we didn't need such a large space and moved to a smaller 1000 sq ft unit. In the later years it became very difficult to forecast operating costs. We had no choice but to cease operations.
How did you feel when Fuk Hing Lung finally succumbed to the tides of change and had to close?
Of course, it was extremely frustrating and disappointing. After all those years of hard work, the machines we painstakingly developed were discarded as scrap metal. But my younger brother and I were nearing retirement age anyway, so it was about time to step back.
What has it been like coming out of retirement to carve mahjong tiles again these past few years? What do you feel is the most difficult part about passing on this craft?
I'm interest-driven, not too concerned with fame or money. I initially took it up with an experimental mindset. My daughter worked hard to get back most of the old tools and materials, so I tried resuming my old trade. Carving just the 144 traditional tiles would be dreary, but my daughter designed many unique pieces. That sparked my interest and gave me a sense of fulfillment. I'm actually more enthusiastic now than before. I research font styles and typesetting. The fonts I choose depend on the design. My favorite recent works are the Wong Tai Sin series. I feel grateful when more people recognize my work, especially foreign buyers who appreciate it.
After a few years, I feel passing on the craft still presents challenges. Learning hand carving takes patience and dedication, and most importantly having suitable materials. The materials nowadays are relatively hard and solid. Beginners would find them very
difficult to work with. Hopefully in the future I can find cost-effective and practical materials for teaching.
We would like to express our gratitude to Master Ricky Cheung for sharing the vanishing mahjong craft story, to keep the disappearing story alive in Hong Kong.
Read More: The Mahjong Family Makers | JaamZIN Creative