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Hidden Hong Kong: Preserving the art of hand-carved mahjong tiles

By Nicole Hurip 28 May 2020

Uncle King is one of the last custodians of the dwindling art of hand-carving mahjong tiles, a practice made obsolete by the steely methodical thuds of machinery. Sitting in his cosy shopfront in Jordan, a neighbourhood he has lived in all his life, Uncle King whittles away at the cream blocks of smooth plastic until the familiar characters of the bamboo, circle, and ten thousand tiles appear. He’s very particular about his tools, lamenting the fact that good quality blades are hard to come by nowadays. A lot of things are hard to come by, compared to before, and even if you do manage to find them, they are often the last of their kind.

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From helping out with the colouring to eventually carving a full set, all without formal training, the path to becoming a mahjong tile-crafting artisan seems more serendipitous than anything. “It just sort of happened,” Uncle King shrugs. “I started out hanging around the old masters after school, in my father’s workshop, picked up the grunt work here and there, and here I am, half a century later.”

The shop, Biu Kee Mahjong, is named after his father, who took it over from his father, and has moved around the area four times to settle in its final resting place at 235 Temple Street. “I take my time with crafting mahjong sets,” says Uncle King. “Otherwise, I have nothing to do!”

Even in the midst of a pandemic, with most of his face obscured by a surgical mask, Uncle King’s enthusiasm was evident. Business has been slow, especially during these times, but Uncle King seems to be readily going about his daily life, going to work as he has for almost fifty years.

Seeing him in his element, creating masterpieces almost effortlessly on the tiles that are his blank slates, talking about the olden days when children as young as ten were allowed to try their hand at crafting a mahjong tile, one can paint a vivid mental picture of how life was like for a young Uncle King.

As a master artisan, one would expect him to approach his craft with reverence, but the vicissitudes of his industry seem to affect him as much as a salty wave drenching a young boy standing on a rocky shore. “I used to play by the shore with my mates, just down the road, where Elements mall is now. We would flip over the rocks and look for crabs, while huge ships would try to dock. I remember one time a particularly large wave soaked me from head to toe. I don’t know how to swim, but back then, we weren’t afraid of dying, not at all.”

When asked if any of his children would be interested in continuing in the family business, Uncle King quickly waves away the notion like a bothersome fly. “Young people nowadays don’t have the patience for this,” he tells us. “They’re too busy playing games on their phones.” His children would come by sometimes to check in, but only if they are in the area. “Why else would they come over?” says Uncle King matter-of-factly.

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A lot of foreigners come to purchase a mahjong set from Uncle King, usually after some sort of media attention on his shop. Most of them are looking for more affordable options, rather than the $4,000 custom hard-carved sets that are Uncle King’s speciality. “It used to be about rapport, if we can have a good conversation,” Uncle King reminisces, “but now people come to inquire and don’t come back. In the past, people would come back.”

“I know that I am probably at the end of the line, so what I’m trying to do is to make a bit of money before the stream runs out,” Uncle King imparts with a throaty chuckle. “My favourite tile to craft is the Ten Thousand one, even better if it’s a Ninety Thousand tile, because it’s money,” he quips. “When my customers don’t come anymore, I’m going to retire.”

Why do we luxuriate in nostalgia, hold on so tightly to the fading wisps of memory? Do we do so just for the sake of it, or is there value in preserving the red glow of the setting sun, or a dying star? Life is a cycle, an arc that inevitably comes down to an endpoint, no matter how high the curve once reached.

Uncle King, with his salt and pepper hair, perched upon his high wooden stool, understands and accepts that. He seems determined to perch for as long as he can, even when it takes quite a bit of effort. His knees are hurting him, so he cannot stand for a prolonged period of time. He needs to shift his weight from one side to the other, to trick his body into holding on just a little longer. “I need surgery to fix my knee, but I’m not going to do it, because I would need to rest for two months, and the shop would have to close,” he explains. “People will think I’ve shut down the store permanently, and stop coming.”

Uncle King does a lot of work with local NGOs, hosting workshops for interested parties to learn how to carve their own mahjong tiles. He has even hosted a mahjong carving party at a bar, where participants can swig a beer and shape a tile with the same breath. He seems proud of his students, showing us pictures of their finished work. “They did a better job than I can!” he exclaims. “I can carve better in Chinese, but they definitely do better in English.”

Progress, made in the name of society, leaves behind a trail of breadcrumbs that only the sincere or curious will make time to follow. The gingerbread house awaits, but the trail grows fainter with each passing day, losing form to scavenging birds and gusts of wind. One day, the house, too, will crumble, and fade into the forest. The forest will keep growing, drawing nourishment from the ruins. The old must make way for the new, but in the meantime, Uncle King will be sitting in his workshop, doing what he does best, listening to the sounds of the city, and waiting for the tide to come in.

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Nicole Hurip

Travel editorial director

Never content with sitting still, Nicole has turned her passion into a career. Hong Kong is her home, but she’ll always have a soft spot for L.A. and London, where she spent her college years. She loves exploring hidden places, hunting for cool vintage pieces, and talking to interesting people. Her vices include consuming excessive amounts of wine and cheese, a debilitating weakness for sparkly things, and spending too much time on Instagram.

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