Cheung Sing-chung, Ricky
J: How did you become a mahjong carver? Any interesting experiences working at the mahjong factory?
C: My father set up Fuk Hing Lung Mahjong Factory in 1963, so I grew up at the factory, and learnt about carving mahjong by hand from the craftsmen. I was passionate about it, therefore, when my father decided to retire due to health issues, I took over the business.
We hardly made any mistakes during our decades of operation. The time spent with my workmates inside the factory had been most memorable, as we were just like a family, with strong bonding.
J: What are the necessary steps, works and skills required in carving mahjong tiles?
C: Mahjong carving requires full concentration, and practice makes perfect. Prior to the carving process, a heat lamp is used to soften the tiles’ surface. Then, we carve out the lines gently and repeatedly. Carving Chinese characters is harder than carving patterns, as the thickness of the strokes must be clear and precise. In addition to carving knives, we also need special tools like “spinning drill” for the “circle suit” and divider. Afterwards, we will paint the tiles with brush-on lacquer, and scrape off the unnecessary paint.
In the past, mahjong manufacturing was divided into four sections – carving, painting, polishing and cleaning, which were all performed by different craftsmen. It would take at least three years to master all the skills needed for hand-carved mahjong.
J: What is your view on the historical changes of mahjong craftsmanship in Hong Kong?
C: When I took over the business during the 80s and 90s, mahjong industry was booming. Hence, Fuk Hing Lung Mahjong Factory relocated from its original shophouse in Kowloon City to a larger space at an industrial building in Kowloon Bay. Yet years later, factories started to move to mainland China, and machines took over mahjong manufacturing. Comparatively, hand-carved mahjong is not cost-effective, and so it becomes a dying craft. Eventually, our factory closed down in 2009. In recent years, however, the public are more concerned about conservation. New generation passes on the legacy of traditional crafts through innovative means, thus mahjong is no longer dull.
J: What are the differences between machine-made mahjong tiles and hand-carved ones?
C: Machine-made mahjong tiles are identical and monotonous, while hand-carved ones are unique with a human touch, as each mahjong carver has his own “characters”.
J: What prompted you to pick up mahjong carving again after retirement?
C: I returned to the business because my daughter invited me to be part of the an art project, Travel Mahjong City. I carved the tiles of “East”, “South”, “West”, “North” and “Red Dragon”, to go along with her city illustrations of Tung Chung, Southern District, Sai Kung, North Point and Central respectively. Thanks also to the nice design by Kanghong Digital Image (HK) Limited, this series of mahjong gift set has received the Judge Award of Hong Kong Smart Design Awards, giving us the confidence to continue with our work.
Although my presbyopia increased with years of mahjong carving, working with my daughter rekindles my old passion.
J: How does your father’s craftsmanship affects your artistic pursuit?
K: I witnessed the growth and decline of the mahjong factory. Therefore, I am more knowledgeable about the manufacturing process and historical background of mahjong, which I also learn to appreciate from an artistic perspective. Mahjong is a game with long history. Many different regions developed their own rules and tile patterns. For example, the American version has “red dragon”, “green dragon” and an additional “joker” tile. These are testaments to the distinct culture of each country, and I have included them into my works.
J: What inspired you to fuse illustration with mahjong?
K: Although the traditional mahjong-making process has been registered as intangible cultural heritage in Hong Kong, there are very few masters left that still practise this trade, youngsters nowadays are not interested to join. In order to preserve this cultural heritage from becoming a lost art, I keep record and share my family stories through illustrations, from the floorplan of our mahjong factory to the tools we use and daily routines, e.g. how my father carves, grandmother paints and uncle polishes mahjong tiles.
In addition to illustration, I have also invited photographer AndyPoll to create a series of black and white photos that shows the transformation of the mahjong factory from its first location in Kowloon City to later Kowloon Bay, and now Karen Aruba Studio in Shek Kip Mei.
Hand-carved Mahjong, Illustration, Engraved
J: How to integrate traditional craftsmanship with innovative design?
K: We tailor-made each and every mahjong tile, adding customer’s name or festive elements to it, so that it will be unique. Deviating from the three traditional colours, we started creating with metallic and even pastel colours. As for the patterns, we have been exploring to adopt laser-engraved in line with traditional hand-carved tiles, to retain the distinct characteristics of my father’s craftsmanship.
Our latest work, Travel with Mahjong in Greenland, is a commissioned work requested to incorporate Greenland’s unique cultural elements in the design of the mahjong patterns, such as the northern lights, berries and kayak. Other than that, we are also launching gold leaf hand-carved mahjong, with 99% pure gold from the “Dragon Mark Gold Leaf” brand, making it an exceptional household decor and collectible item.
J: What is the biggest takeaway from working with your father?
K: Before we started working together, we had little artistic interactions and had mostly focused on our own different projects. Since we started collaborating together, we have more discussions on project improvement and modifications, even though I specialise in design and he works on carving. There are more common topics between us, and I treasure our times together more, thinking back our good old days. I did not pay much attention to my father’s craft before, but now I realise many people, especially overseas audience, are interested in his mahjong carving demonstration.
Cheung Hoi-yan, Karen
J: Any plans for the future?
K: With the establishment of Karen Aruba Studio at JCCAC, I wish to document and promote mahjong craftsmanship in a more systematic and comprehensive manner by holding exhibitions, demonstrations and workshops, so that more people will learn to appreciate the artistry involved, instead of considering it merely as a game or gambling tool.
Looking ahead, we are looking to create more mahjong sets and wall art decors based on Hong Kong cultures and other places like Canada.