Before there were trendy toys such as Barbie dolls or games consoles, whipping tops were among the most popular toys in Taiwan. While few youngsters play with the twirling devices nowadays, a Taiwanese craftsman from Taoyuan County’s Dasi Township (大溪) keeps the traditional craft alive.
Yang Chin-fu (楊金福), 73, is among a small number of craftsmen in Taiwan who still handcrafts wooden spinning tops. He has run a small business producing these tops for nearly 30 years.
Centuries ago, many carpenters in Dasi taught their children how to make whipping tops — this is how the craft was kept alive in the township in northern Taiwan.
Unlike many other places in Taiwan, residents in Dasi have continued to play with these toys. The preservation of “an old-town atmosphere in Dasi” makes it possible for the residents to maintain the centuries-old activity, local culture historian Huang Chien-yi (黃建義) said.
Unlike in Japan, where spinning tops are made from wood and iron, Taiwanese craftsmen produce tops made solely of wood, according to experts.
As a child, Yang carved small chunks of wood into whipping tops to play with. Later he became a taxi driver, but still made tops as a side job.
Yang said he is a self-taught spinning top carver. Over the years, he has made tops in a variety of sizes, ranging from tops as small as a fist, to large ones which weigh up to 70kg.
“It’s an interesting craft,” Yang said, adding he has obtained a sense of achievement from people recognizing the quality of his products.
At the age of 45, he turned his hobby into a side business.
Yang, also a master of spinning the tops, said he was encouraged to begin the business by friends who would gather to play with the ones he had made.
“They said the tops I made were quite good to play with,” Yang added.
The key to making a whipping top, Yang said, is to first find the central point of each piece of wood. This is to ensure the balance of the top so that it will spin steadily, he said.
Yang can produce tops with diameters ranging from 10cm to 60cm.
It is difficult to make tops from big chunks of wood and create a beautiful shape, according to Huang.
“However, Yang can do it,” said Huang, who has also been playing with whipping tops since his childhood.
He said the craftsman has played an integral part in “preserving the art of making spinning tops.”
Yang’s works can be found in some stores on the old street in Dasi, a tourist attraction famed for its Baroque-style architecture dating from when Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945.
The old street is where local residents gather to play with the tops, Huang said.
Meanwhile, Yang’s products have been distributed around Taiwan, with some exported to Japan and the US.
His customers range from university students in southern Taiwan to schools in Dasi. For example, Mei-Hwa Elementary School has bought a number of tops to teach students how use these toys, as part of efforts to preserve local folk culture.
About five years ago, a Japanese television crew traveled to Dasi to visit Yang.
Besides making whipping tops for the Japanese team, Yang, who can also spin tops in various sizes, said he taught them how to use the toys.
Neither a whipping top smaller than a thumb nor a top weighing more than 40kg is too hard for Yang to spin.
However, orders for whipping tops have decreased in recent years. Sometimes Yang has to wait a couple of months to get an order, he said.