For 61 years, 76-year-old Chen Chi-huang (陳錦煌) has carried on the family trade of making and selling handwoven bamboo steamers, but he is worried that this traditional skill is disappearing given low market demand and a lack of apprentices.
However, Lugang Township (鹿港) Mayor Huang Chen-yen (黃振彥) may be able to offer Chen and other aging handicraft masters a chance to revive their craft by promoting local traditional crafts and tourism together — ie, making traditional handicrafts a staple of local traditions and branding them as unique to the area.
Seeking to weave local crafts and tourism together to promote the town, Huang visited both old and young handicraft masters, seeking their counsel and ideals on how such an endeavor may be accomplished.
Huang was especially impressed with Chen’s work, as Chen’s weaving skills are so solid and intricate that the bamboo steamers will not break even if a person stands on them.
The weaving of bamboo steamers has been the main source of income for the Chen family through the ages, with the skill being passed from father to son and the family enjoying a reputation for making quality steamers, Chen said.
The 1960 and 1970s were a golden age for traditional handicrafts, Chen said, adding that at times the family had to work through the night to finish an order.
However, traditional handicrafts cannot compete with machine-made works, and the family saw orders for its handwoven steamers plunge.
Although demand has shrunk, Chen still enjoys working on the family trade. Instead of being purely functional steamers, the products have become collectors’ items or gifts that people buy for family or friends abroad in the US or Japan.
Still, this is not enough to lift demand. Chen expressed concern that the low demand combined with the unwillingness of the young to learn the craft may spell the end for the trade.
Huang is more optimistic, seeing the current crisis as a catalyst for change. Promoting traditional handicrafts together with tourism may revive interest in the craft, he said.
The township government is seeking to incorporate more traditional crafts into large tourism events, such as the traditional handicraft month during the Lugang Winter tour season or the annual Lugang Dragon Boat Festival, Huang said.
These events can serve as a platform to promote and sell traditional handicrafts, increasing their visibility and viability as a product for the modern times, Huang said.