Sun, May 18, 2003 - Page 17 News List

Local artists carve a cultural niche

Fears over SARS put the dampers on the opening of Sanyi's annual Woodcarving Festival yesterday, but the town's reputation for fine carving is undiminished

By Gavin Phipps  /  STAFF REPORTER

The entire nation would no doubt agree how nice it would be to forget about SARS, but the spread of the epidemic has made such thinking impossible. This was all too apparent yesterday, with the start of the annual Sanyi Woodcarving Festival (三義木雕節).

Local woodcarvers demonstrated the techniques that have established them as possibly the finest woodcarvers in the world -- capable of creating detailed, predominantly Buddhism-related sculptures from the trunks of camphor trees within minutes. Art store proprietors opened their doors early, their shelves filled with wooden art of all shapes, sizes and forms, all hoping for brisk business on this festive day. The atmosphere might have been cordial, but there were few smiles. The faces of many of those who turned out to participate in and enjoy the day's events and activities were securely hidden behind the now almost obligatory surgical masks.

Now in its third year, the nine-day festival is organized in conjunction with the Miaoli County Government (苗栗縣政府), the local Hakka community and Sanyi's town council. Additional funds and backing are provided by the Ministry of Transportation and Communications (交通部) and the Council for Cultural Affairs (文化建設委員會).

For both the artists and art shop owners alike, it was hoped that this year's festival would prove a vital boost to business already hard hit by the economic turndown.

"Until about two years ago business was booming. Even on weekdays we'd see tourists coming here from not only Taiwan, but other counties in Asia and beyond," said gallery proprietor, Hsu Bi-hsiang (徐碧霞).

"With the economic situation and now SARS, the number of tourists coming here is pretty low. I only hope that for a few days at least, people can simply enjoy themselves."

Located in a valley nestled between Huoyin (火炎山) and Guandao mountains (關刀山) in Miaoli County (苗栗縣) and 16km south of Miaoli City (苗栗市), Sanyi (三義) is one of the oldest known centers of camphor woodcarving in Asia.

So abundant are the wood carving factories and workshops in the area that the aroma of camphor hangs in the air and is detectable long before you reach the town. Even through a sturdy N95 surgical mask the pungent woody odor is unavoidable.

Historical records, along with artifacts unearthed in the surrounding hillsides, point to a tradition of woodcarving that dates back over 400 years. Local Aborigines were the first to use the gnarled trunks and roots of local camphor trees as a medium for religious icons and cultural artworks.

Attracting art

Although the town has been a magnet for art students keen to learn the art of woodcarving from the 1920s onwards, it wasn't until the 1970s that the town's woodcarving tradition went global. Works by well-known Sanyi based woodcarvers began to find their way into Taipei galleries and in turn onto the international market.

"I came here 17 years ago when the town was a sleepy little backwater. The artists were few in number, but those who were here were deadly serious about their work," said Sanyi-based artist and Chiayi native, Chen Yi-lang (陳義郎).

"Tourism certainly wasn't the reason we based ourselves here. We were here to learn, the growth of the town as a tourist destination was something that just happened to explode around us."

In the mid-1990s a plot of land on a hillside south of Sanyi town proper was designated as a development site for a "tourist friendly zone." Unlike the low-lying town center, the location offered vistas of lush tea plantations and the surrounding mountains.

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