Sun, Jul 06, 2003 - Page 17 News List

Hitting all the right notes

As one of Taiwan's least known industries, Houli's brass instrument manufacturers have successfully been keeping the world in saxophones for nearly 50 years

By Gavin Phipps  /  STAFF REPORTER

He might be the musician

people love to hate, but crack a joke about soprano saxophonist, Kenny G and his "smooth jazz" in the Taichung County town of Houli (后里鄉) and you could be cruising for a bruising.

Twelve kilometers north of Taichung City, with the Danan (大安溪) and (大甲溪) Dajia rivers running through it, on the surface Houli appears to be an odd place for a G fan-base.

The surrounding countryside is littered with farms, predominantly grape farms, and the skyline is dominated by the town's bread and butter industries -- a steel factory and an equally large paper mill.

It's not the mind-numbing monotony of the long hours large numbers of Houli's 55,531 inhabitants spend on farms or factory floors, however, which has led to the saxophonist's huge following. More affectionately known as Musical Instrument Town (樂器之鄉), the reason for G's popularity is because Houli happens to be one of the largest centers of saxophone production in the world.

According to life-long Houli resident, Chang Ming-teh (張明德), 97 percent of the world's saxophones originate from the town's roughly 20 family-run factories. A more moderate estimate provided by the Taichung County Cultural Bureau is a little less, however, with Houli accounting for approximately two thirds of the world's saxophones.

While its production of brass instruments is undeniably prolific, the industry doesn't offer much in the way of employment. The business is a cottage industry and run solely by family members out of their own homes with no outside help or with as few as six or seven employees.

Except for the cylindrical brass tubing that can be spotted in the backs of vans as they make their deliveries, there is little indication as to the

presence of the industry in the town.

It might be one of Taiwan's least talked about businesses, yet Houli's saxophone production is one of the nation's oldest and most successful export-orientated industries.

"As many of the factories are located in private houses and we all know each other there's little point in having huge signs," said saxophone manufacturer, Wang Tsai-rei (王彩蕊). "We have been doing this for almost 50 years now, and, whether they knew it or not, people all over the world have used Houli saxophones."

The town's little-known saxophone-legacy began shortly after World War II. A resident who'd lived in Japan during the war returned home in 1946 toting an old and rather natty saxophone. The battered instrument fell into the hands of painter and entrepreneur, Chang Lien-cheng (張連昌), who set about toying with the brass contraption. Within a short period of time and with no prior knowledge of saxophones he managed to restore it to its former glory.

Learning to play the repaired instrument, however, wasn't enough for Chang. According to his grandson Chang Tsong-yao (張宗瑤), the current proprietor of the family business, the elder Chang was "was always looking for a challenge." He figured that he could make his own saxophones and market them.

A mere year after the battered saxophone had come into his possession Chang established the town's first saxophone factory. Receiving only unpaid assistance from family members, he was soon one of the nation's leading private manufacturers of saxophones. Selling his products for NT$1,200, or roughly twice the average monthly wage.

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