When Kuo Wen-hsi started learning the ancient art of making Chinese ink brushes six decades ago, he had no idea that one day his business would boom because of customers who can't even write.
But as Taiwan's birth rate plunges to worringly low levels, so-called “fetal hair brushes” made of a baby's hair are in massive demand from better-off parents to commemorate the birth of their newborns.
The baby trade forms the core business for Kuo's once-ailing small shop in Taipei that is stocked with hundreds of the products waiting to be delivered across the country.
“In the past only government officials and rich families ordered a fetal hair brush to commemorate the birth of a baby because such a tailor-made brush is more expensive,” says Kuo.
“Now many younger parents have two salaries and fewer children so they are more willing to spend money on pampering their kids,” adds Kuo, 73, who struggled to keep his family tradition alive through the hard times.
The ink brush has been widely used by officials, scholars and students to write, practice calligraphy or paint for thousands of years.
Its popularity diminished with the advent of fountain pens and later ballpoint pens in the last five decades or so.
“Even though very few people were buying ink brushes during that time, I did not consider switching to a new profession because the elders in my family wished me to continue our trade,” recalls the modest, soft-spoken Kuo.
Born into a family of calligraphy brush-makers, Kuo inherited the business just in time to witness the downturns, seeing trade plummet 80 percent from a peak of 5,000 brushes a day.
For a while Kuo had to work part-time selling furniture to support his shop but his persistence eventually paid off, thanks to an old product catching on amid the new social phenomenon of record low birth rates.
Taiwan's fertility rate fell to an all-time low last year, as the average number of children that a woman gave birth to dropped to 0.91 from 0.96 in 2004, according to statistics from the interior ministry.
A total of 206,400 babies were born last year, down 5.2 percent from the previous year, the ministry said.
Kuo's biggest customers now are aged between 12 days and 18 months.
The only requirement is that they never have a haircut so the fetal hair remains intact to make the special brushes.
Kuo takes all the hair from the baby's head, shaving it off in his shop or at the customer's home. The size of the brushes depends on the amount of hair.
A set consists of three to five fetal hair brushes, two name chops and a stamp pad that costs between NT$3,500 and NT$56,800 and is sold in a wooden box carved with the baby's footprints, according to Kuo.
Part of the umbilical cord is preserved inside the name chops aimed at bringing fortune to the baby, as traditionally the cord is a sign of wealth, he says.
The most expensive brushes Kuo ever sold were a NT$100,000 set made of jade.
A basic calligraphy brush sold in bookstores or stationary shops costs some NT$50.
“The fetal hair brush is the biggest opportunity for brush-makers as popular demand for this product helps revive our trade, and now there are some 200 shops offering the souvenir brush,” says Kuo.
The niche market is apparently lucrative as Kuo's shop boasts a monthly revenue of up to NT$1 million.
He also has Taiwanese customers living in Japan, the US, Australia and elsewhere who found his services on the Internet and returned to order the brush.