Sun, Nov 07, 2004 - Page 18 News List

Eking out a living from tubs

Lin Huang-yi is the third generation of his family to make and sell the traditional hinoki wood bath tubs, basins and kitchen utensils from his shop in Taipei

By Max Woodworth  /  STAFF REPORTER

Lin Huang-yi waits for customers at this hinoki wood bath tubs store on Zhongshan North Road in Taipei.

PHOTO: MAX WOODWORTH, TAIPEI TIMES

With the volume turned up loud enough to be heard over the din of afternoon traffic on Zhongshan North Road in Taipei, two generations of Lin men sat on the floor of their cramped shop on Thursday, watching Japanese variety shows while a trickle of customers, mostly just passersby, would pause at the store's open front to consider the wooden tubs and basins stacked to the ceiling.

Passing pedestrians rarely make impulse purchases of NT$25,000 for a 20kg, hinoki wood bath tub, so the Lins are skilled at sizing up potential customers at a glance and are a bit loathe to indulge random people's curiosity. After 76 years in the business of making the tubs, basins and kitchen utensils at their shop, Lin Tian Tong Dian (林田桶電), they say theirs is a niche market of customers who know exactly what they're looking for.

"It's either old people who grew up during the Japanese occupation and adopted the Japanese bathing tradition, or young people who see it as a quaint relic from long ago and something fun to have around the house," said Lin Huang-yi (林煌一), the third generation of Lins to run the store, but the first to speak Chinese as a first language.

The Lin Tian store, named after its founder, was fomerly one among many hawking similar wares on the block between what is now Civil Boulevard and Changan West Road. The area formerly was an almost exclusively Japanese neighborhood, housing bureaucrats of the colonial administration and their families whose fastidious hygiene habits provided the Lins and others making wooden tubs with a stable business.

Hinoki cedar wood was a major product in the Japanese administration's lumber trade and was extracted almost to the point of extinction, so that now the trees grow only in scattered groves deep in the mountains. The scarcity of the trees, which are protected under the law, accounts for the dear prices customers now pay for the tubs.

"Most people show some form of shock when I tell them the prices. People are used to plastic tubs that cost a fraction of these, so they're definitely not for every-one," Lin Huang-yi said, stressing the word "plastic" with an audible tone of derision.

Every product is made by hand by the father-and-son duo using only wood boards, bamboo pegs and metal wire. The pegs fix the boards in the proper shape, while the braided wire is tightened around the tub to keep it water-tight and to prevent it from

warping.

"Hinoki wood is the best because of its high resistance to water and heat. If you use cheaper woods, it will expand from the heat of the water and then contract, and very quickly the wire will slide down and that will ruin the shape of the whole tub," Lin Huang-yi said. Cheaper woods are also quick to mold in Taiwan's humid climate, he said.

A full-size tub takes about four days to finish -- two days longer than in years past because of the elder Lin Hsiang Lin's (林相林) creeping frailty. But despite his age, the elder is still a deft hand with a mallet and a master of his trade, which he was taught by his father and which he in turn taught his son. According to tradition, the apprenticeship in the trade lasted 40 months.

Though they won't provide details, people's changing habits and rising material costs have made a noticeable impact on the Lins' business. By the time the Japanese left Taiwan in 1945, the workshop was crowded with 15 craftsmen under the direction of Lin Tian, making primarily tubs. Currently, it's just the two Lins and their sales are mostly of the less expensive shallow wash basins and flower pots, which run up to NT$5,000, as well as steamers and rice bowls made of Chinese fir that are sold to local Japanese restaurants.

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