Wed, Mar 20, 2019 - Page 13 News List

Perfection is not all it’s cracked up to be

With little practical value in the era of disposable plates and fast fashion, traditional repair craftspeople rely on people’s sentiment toward prized objects or turn to artistic endeavors, from adding little flourishes to completely repurposing the original

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

The cracks on this broken jar owned by Lai Chih-hsien are fashioned into a spider web.

Photo: Han Cheung, Taipei TImes

Chen Kao-teng (陳高登) communicates with the objects he repairs — whether bowls, plates or teapots, he doesn’t discriminate. Chen does so, he says, because it’s the best way to channel his creativity, a lesson he learned from his mentor Lai Chih-hsien (賴志賢).

He would later discover that the process made him reapproach his attitude towards the polio he has had since he was a child.

“Lai taught me how to talk to the objects,” he says. “We think that as craftsmen we can do whatever we please with an object, but objects have souls.”

Chen, 52, is among a handful of craftspeople in Taiwan who earns a living repairing and repurposing broken, discarded and imperfect objects using the traditional craft of ceramic repair called juci (焗瓷).

The trade thrived during the Japanese colonial period when even the ritzy hotel Kangsanlau (江山樓) used plates during banquets that had been stapled together. It declined in the 1960s as the nation’s economy took off, while restaurants started using disposable plates and stores began selling NT$200 shoes. He also learned the Japanese art of kintsugu, which uses resin and gold or silver dust to fill cracks.

It wasn’t until 2013 that Chen and Lai received formal training from Chinese master Wang Laoxie (王老邪). Wang began his apprenticeship at the age of four as the grandson of a court repair craftsman for the Qing Empire.

Since juci was dormant for decades, even “specialists” like Chen are relative newcomers. Originally a metalsmith, Chen accidentally discovered the craft while researching ways to fix a friend’s teapot. While Chen sought out Lai as the authority on juci for his Master’s thesis, Lai insists that he was no expert and only gleaned what he could by taking apart repaired antiques.

POLIO AND PERFECTION

In his studio, Chen motions towards the metal staples in a teapot. He tells me how they remind him of the numerous surgeries to correct the imperfections polio wrought on his childhood body.

“Life isn’t perfect... But we can still find a way to repair things,” Chen says.

He came to this realization six years ago when he started to practice juci.

“I initially thought I was just making the damaged part look prettier,” he says. “But I realized I was also channeling my thoughts and feelings into the process. I started being less conscious about my disability, which I used to hide from everyone.”

In other words, perfection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Sometimes just because something is broken doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value.

“A person’s sentimental attachment to an object isn’t going to disappear just because they can afford something new,” Chen says. “[Some objects are] irreplaceable not only because of the customer’s emotional attachment to it, but also because another might not exist.”

Chen says most of his customers today bring him objects that have sentimental value — a family heirloom, for example, or a favorite pipe. At the prohibitive price of NT$2,000 to NT$3,000, fixing any old teapot wouldn’t make financial sense.

Chen says there’s been a surge of interest in his skill due to an increased awareness of sustainability, reducing waste and green living, but there’s only a handful of artisans doing it for a living.

“I want people to think before they discard,” Lai says.

KEEPING AN OLD TRADE RELEVANT

Since traditional repairs are no longer a necessity, Chen and Lai say creativity keeps the trade relevant, from stapling a split tabletop in a way that resembles a flower to repurposing a broken teapot into an oil lamp and incense burner. Instead of restoring something to its original form, they breath new life and value into formerly defective objects, Lai says.

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