Biu Kee Mahjong
I have a passion for understairs stalls, but know that these stores are diminishing at a fast pace. Right before the arrival of Category 10 Super typhoon Mangkhut, i took time off on a Friday lunchtime and met with Uncle King, the craftsman of hand-carved mahjong tiles, full name Cheung Sheung King, the 3rd generation proprietor of Biu Kee Mahjong. Uncle King has picked up the skills from watching his dad and grandfather as well as a group of craftsman working in the shop all those years ago. When Uncle King was young, he would finish school and help out at the store, watching a few of the well-respected craftsman carve away. They frequently let him practise on thrown away tiles. So it was only natural that Uncle King would inherit this family business.
In those times, you could support a family with a small business as long as you worked hard. Times have now changed, however, and carving Mahjong tiles is considered a dying art, made worse by the emergence of machine-made mahjong tiles from China. A machine-produced mahjong set will cost around HK$700 compared to a hand-carved set starting from HK$4,000. You can imagine the scale of the competition that exists, and for those who don’t care too much about the special feel of a hand-carved set, saving some money and buying them machine-made has become the norm.
On the day of the interview, Uncle King used his hand-made knives to demonstrate how to carve the character “East”, one character in the 144 character set. He asked me to move to the side a little so as not to block off the natural sunlight which allows him to focus on the white tile. He has no need for a template, he steadily focus on the tile and within 10 minutes, has carved out the Chinese word. The big difference between machine-carved and hand-made mahjong tiles is that you can tell which character is which by simply feeling the tiles. The colour lasts for a lifetime and there is no plastic smell. The colouring process also requires much experience and skill, painting on blue before green as it’s easier that way, but important not to use too much or too little colour. Then once the paint has dried out, a small metal spatula is used to remove the excess paint with a special tip. Can you imagine individually carving out patterns and colouring 144 individual tiles. It requires intense concentration and dedication.
The heyday for the industry was back in the 60s and 70s, supplying the many mahjong shops along Nathan Road and Temple street in Jordan. The mahjong tile shops were suppliers for Mahong parlours, gambling dens and night clubs where mahjong is a game to pass the time. From the beginning of the 90s, however, the emergence of electronic mahjong tables and machine made magnetic tiles started to squeeze out the old industry, and even the suppliers for tools and coloured paints have long since retired. Its just so happens that Uncle King had the foresight to accumulate stocks over the years to help sustain his business. On the day of the interview, he had a couple of foreign visitors asking to buy set of mahjong tiles as presents for their friends, and apparently he has many other fans from overseas! Driven partly by nostalgia and customers reminiscing over old times, people come to him to make orders for bespoke tiles with special words.
When asked about the future of the business, Uncle said he will likely choose to retire should ever the government decide to reclaim the building where the store is located. After all, he has moved four times already before settling here on Jordan Road, but he reckons that by that time, he will have no choice but to close down. Having visited all these old shops and crafts these past years, and made friends with so many of the owners, i feel a sense of helplessness knowing that nothing much can be done to sustain these special crafts, unless we can all do something to help. Embracing technology and progress by all means, yet at the same time preserving our history, heritage and craftsmanship.