Welcome to Humans of Hong Kong, a brand-new story series on Localiiz that takes a deeper look at the many colourful characters and unique personalities that call our beloved city home. In this episode, we sit down with Biu Kee Mahjong’s Cheung Shun-king, affectionately known as Uncle King, for a glimpse into the life of one of the last artisans still practising the art of hand-carving mahjong.
“When I craft a mahjong set, I start with the Ten Thousand tiles first, because they are the toughest. They take a long time to make because they have a lot of strokes. Bitterness first, sweetness later. I’ll always do the hardest ones first. Each stroke takes four or five scrapes, so just the Ten Thousand tile takes at least 20 cuts. The Wind tiles can be done faster, as they only have a few strokes in the characters. It’s all the same process, but the difference is how many strokes, hence cuts, are needed.
“The Bamboo tiles are also quite easy; you make a straight line with a special tool, then carve out the segments of the bamboo. It’s really fun to do—the curves twist about like a snake. Circles are the ones that take the least amount of time to make, but it is also the most dangerous. It’s because the point of the blade used for the Circle tiles is really tiny, about the size of a sesame seed. If you’re impatient, or you’re distracted, just for a second, your hand might slip and the sharp point will break. The shard will fly into my hand, eight out of 10 times.
“It may not seem so but it takes quite a bit of strength to hold the point steady. The trick is to lightly make a mark at the centre point first, then push down harder once there is already a groove to complete the circle. This takes at least three tries to ensure that the grooves are deep enough. For Circle tiles, there is no margin for error. Other tiles are still salvageable if you’re a bit off, but for Circles, if you’re off, you’re off. You have to throw the tile away. So I say that Circles are the easiest to craft, but it takes the most focus and precision.”
“I don’t have apprentices, but I do hold workshops for fun from time to time. I work with social enterprises, because I don’t have the space, and I don’t know how to attract business. My students are usually youngsters—last year, there was a workshop held at a craft beer bar. Half of them were foreigners, and they drank beer while crafting tiles. Those are really fun. Foreigners really know how to enjoy life.”
“I’ve been playing in this area since I was a kid. Jordan seems to have stayed pretty much the same, apart from two or three new buildings. Decades ago, this side of Jordan was always crowded, because this is where the pier is. People would walk from here to where Elements mall is now. We used to play there a lot, hunting for crabs. One time, I was drenched from a ship trying to dock, I think I was only 10 years old. It was quite dangerous, and I don’t know how to swim, but we weren’t afraid of dying then. We would cook the crabs we caught in the evaporated milk tins used in cha chaan tengs, and eat them. That’s how kids play back then.
“We also played with marbles and kites. We made our own kites, including the string. We would pick up a glass bottle from the street, hammer it down to a fine powder, then coat the string with it. It was better than buying it from the stores. We would have kite battles, and if you had good quality string you can cut down other people’s kites. If not, yours would be the one being cut. It’s tough, making your own kites, but it didn’t matter because it was what we liked to do.”
“I don’t know how to play mahjong. I really don’t have time to learn, because I don’t take breaks from work, except for the first day of the new year when we go call on family and friends to wish them good fortune and health.
“Honestly, mahjong-making is not going to last. There’s still business, but it’s at the end of the line. I only hope to make a bit of money before it comes to an end. I’m practical like that. Of course, it is a pity that no one is going to take over, but you can’t complain. That’s just how things are.”