Carefully applying lime and cement to the red ceramic tiles that comprise the roof of an historic building in Pingtung County’s Linbian Township (林邊), master builder Tsai Yuan-ho (蔡源和) works with Yungle Village (永樂) Mayor Tsai Yu-hsin (蔡玉心) to restore the edifice to its former glory.
One of the county’s few remaining traditional houses with red ceramic tiles, the building is thought to have been constructed by the Cheng (鄭) family, who headquartered their business in it in 1899. In 1926, the building was renovated, Pingtung County Cultural Affairs Department records show.
By 2001, the building had become dilapidated, so Tsai Yu-hsin commissioned the 65-year-old master builder to repair it.
Eight years later, the building suffered considerable damage from Typhoon Morakot, but despite the central government’s Council for Cultural Agency allotting NT$18 million (US$620,250 at current exchange rates) to subsidize its repairs, Tsai Yu-hsin said he turned down the money because he felt it could be better used elsewhere.
Using one-tenth of the amount of money offered by the council, the village mayor restored the building, again enlisting Tsai Yuan-ho’s services.
Given his history with the building, Tsai Yuan-ho was the obvious person to turn to when the roof sprung a leak several months ago.
The master builder said that to maintain the Cheng building’s authenticity, it is necessary to use shingles taken from demolished houses of the same era, as well as ceramic tiles, when making the repairs.
About 600 to 700 tiles are needed for each ping (3.3m2) of roof area and since each tile costs NT$10, the average cost of retiling 1 ping of roof — including overhead costs — is about NT$10,000, Tsai Yuan-ho said.
Tsai Yuan-ho said that to fix the roof, he lays the tiles using cement and lime as an adhesive, adding that he does not use any other waterproof materials.
“It’s a delicate job that requires finesse and skill, both of which are in short supply since the younger generations are reluctant or averse to learning the trade,” the master builder said.
It is a sentiment that Tsai Yu-hsin shares.
The Yungle mayor said it was increasingly difficult to find people capable of maintaining and repairing heritage-level buildings, adding that Tsai Yuan-ho’s skills are in such high demand that there is a two-month waiting list to hire him for building or roof repairs.
The younger generation do not want to learn the trade because they do not want to make the sacrifices that mastering such a delicate craft entails, Tsai Yu-hsin said.
However, he said he was grateful that people like Tsai Yuan-ho were willing to help the village retain its architectural culture and maintain the tourism functions of the Cheng family building.