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Taiwan Panorama / Article:Sweet Sound of Saxes-- The Horn Makers of Houli
Sweet Sound of Saxes-- The Horn Makers of Houli
Tsai Wen-ting/photos by Jimmy Lin/tr. by Paul Frank
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When you mention Houli Town-ship in Taichung County, most people think only of the Houli Horse Farm. Few people know that one in three saxophones in the world were once manufactured in Houli.

When former US president Bill Clinton visited Taiwan at the beginning of the year, President Chen Shui-bian presented him with a saxophone made in Houli. The saxophone makers of Houli, who have been making the instruments for generations, were proud to see one of their saxophones become a presidential gift.

The story of Houli's saxophone industry started with a house fire.

In 1947, after World War II, a local man named Chang Chi-pan, who loved playing and composing music, ordered a saxophone from Japan and formed a band with fellow enthusiasts Chang Teng-hui and Chang Lien-cheng. The instrument cost as much as a hectare of land fetched in those days.

The father of Taiwan's saxophones

Shortly after the band was formed, there was a fire in Chang Chi-pan's home which almost destroyed his saxophone. Chang Lien-cheng, the band's trumpet player, who was a picture framer by trade and was skilled at gongbi, a style of traditional Chinese painting characterized by fine brushstrokes and close attention to detail, took the twisted and blackened saxophone home and spent the next three months taking the instrument apart piece by piece, almost 400 in all, and making meticulous drawings of them. He then took a strip of brass from under a sliding door in his home to make into saxophone keys, and melted down a treasured old silver coin to use as soldering material.

Unhappily, one day a brass bar rebounded and hit Chang in the right eye, blinding him in that eye. But Chang persevered, and after three years of self-taught effort he completed Taiwan's first saxophone, which he later sold to an overseas Chinese from the Philippines. This was the beginning of Houli's remarkable story of saxophone manufacturing.

Chang Lien-cheng, the father of Houli's saxophones, was born to a humble family of farmers in 1912, during the Japanese occupation. At the age of 13, as his four elder brothers were out tilling the fields, Chang began to dream of doing something bigger than driving an ox cart with his siblings. Before the break of dawn he secretly bade his mother farewell, picked up his bag and walked for three, four hours until he reached Tachia Township, some nine kilometers from his hometown. There he studied the art of ink-and-wash painting and the craft of mounting pictures from a master who hailed from mainland China. After learning his craft, Chang returned to Houli. Because he loved dabbling in art and music, he began to learn to play the trumpet from a fellow townsman nicknamed "Black India" (whose real name is now forgotten), and joined Chang Chi-pan's amateur band.

Chang Lien-cheng never imagined that his Chinese painting skill, and the eye for detail it required, would be a bridge to a career as a musical instrument maker. Once Chang had finished his first saxophone, he resolved to give in to his passion for music, took on some apprentices, and went into business making saxophones.

Chang Lien-cheng was a rigorous teacher. If one of his apprentices made a mistake, he would rap him on the head with a rod. Once, when an apprentice made a big mistake, Chang smashed his work to pieces on the floor in front of all the apprentices, explaining that a flawed saxophone is not a musical instrument, but just a worthless toy.

"Strict discipline is the secret of success. My master taught me everything he knew!" Chang Lai speaks of his master, who died almost 20 years ago, with great respect and admiration. After 30 years making musical instruments, Chang Lai's ten fingers have become thicker and stronger than ordinary people's.

In the old days, Chang's workshop resounded all day to the sound of banging metal. At nightfall, romantic saxophone melodies echoed through the old alleys of Houli. After work, Chang and his apprentices would play from a score. Chang encouraged them to let music be part of their lives, and had a big hand in turning Houli into a "nest of musicians."

"In 1953, when the Hsiluo Bridge was completed, Houli was the only town in Taiwan that had a Western music band." Chang Lai reels off the names of famous musicians from Houli, like Wang Chi-hsuan, the conductor of the Taiwan TV orchestra everyone knows as the "Barbarian King," or orchestral performers Yang Shui-chin, Hsu Wen-nan, Chang Yin-yao, and Chang Yun-hsiang.

As Chang Lien-cheng's apprentices and admirers spread their wings, Houli gradually acquired an international reputation as a saxophone manufacturing town. In the 1980s, business began to boom and the approximately 30 saxophone factories in Houli were making about 3000 instruments a year and earning more than NT$700 million from exports.

In recent years, competition from mainland China has stiffened, and mainland factories have cornered the cheap, mass-produced end of the market. But thanks to more than half a century of experience, many international saxophone brands still use Taiwan factories as their principal contract manufacturers, and 12 musical instrument factories remain in Houli.

A handsome "black dog"

On a wall in the Chang Lien-cheng Saxophone Museum hangs a self-portrait Chang painted when he was 23. The painting depicts a 175-centimeter-tall young man with a refined demeanor. Chang was not only a skilled musical instrument maker, painter, and calligrapher, he was also quite a "black dog," as the Taiwanese call handsome young men. Chang Wen-tsan, his son, also cuts quite a figure, though his looks are more rugged than his father's. When his parents tried to introduce him to a prospective bride in the 1960s, he rebelled by putting on a pair of torn jeans and shaving off his hair.

Wang Tsai-jui, wife of Chang Lien-cheng's grandson Chang Tsung-yao, smiles as she tells this family anecdote: "My father-in-law married the prettiest girl in the neighborhood. They picked the 14th day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar, the eve of the Ghost Festival, as the day of the wedding. Chang's Western music band fetched the bride, which was considered a very daring thing to do. People in the neighborhood still talk about it!"

From a very young age, Chang Tsung-yao, who was born in 1955, liked to hide behind a door in the factory or at home and listen furtively to his granddad practicing the sax with his apprentices. By the time he was 13, Tsung-yao made his first saxophone.

Chang Tsung-yao, a man of few but honest words, remembers, "From the day we were born, it was decided that we would go into this business. Other babies were given cakes to stop them drooling. I was given a saxophone." An enlarged black-and-white photograph in the memorial hall shows a four-month-old baby boy with dark eyebrows and big eyes who is holding on to a saxophone twice his size. The boy is Chang Tsung-yao.

The saxophone little Tsung-yao is holding in the photograph is engraved with a dragon pattern and was made by his grandfather. After the museum opened, Chang Tsung-yao bought back this saxophone from its owner and put it on display. The instrument is engraved with Chang Lien-cheng's name-a mark of his pride and confidence in his handiwork.

A new world of music

Houli's saxophones are a product with a distinct local identity. Of Chang Lien-cheng's first generation of apprentices, some continued to work as saxophone makers, some specialized in repairing musical instruments, and some changed career track and became suppliers of instrument parts. Together they formed a complete manufacturing network. Because their companies were small and could not take on the entire manufacturing process themselves, some steps, such as electroplating and lacquering, were outsourced to specialized factories, creating an integrated manufacturing network organized according to specialization and division of labor.

Wang Tsai-jui says, "We're all either relatives, or former masters and apprentices, or fellow apprentices. But because we all travel and do business in an environment of low-price competition, we've ended up competing against each other." Wang can't contain a sigh of regret when he thinks of the open strife and veiled rivalry that have come to rule Houli's saxophone industry.

Tsai Chang-wen, a research fellow at the Industrial Technology Research Institute's Mechanical Industry Research Laboratories (MIRL) and long-time observer of the industry, points out a more serious problem: "As long as Taiwan's saxophone makers don't have their own brands and lack standardized manufacturing processes, they can only be contract manufacturers for international brands."

Wang Tsai-jui says, "We're 60 years late in establishing a brand." More than 30 years ago, the quality of the Chang Lien-cheng's instruments was excellent, and the Japanese Yamaha Musical Instruments Co. expressed an interest in going into a partnership with Chang, but the idea came to nothing because the two sides failed to reach an agreement on the apportionment of shares.

Chang Lai says, "In the old days, we trained all the Yamaha instrument makers."Considering that Chang Lai has spent his life working selflessly for others and passed on his expertise from generation to generation, he cannot help heaving a sigh of regret when he sees that Jupiter, which grew out of Yamaha, is the only saxophone name brand in Taiwan.

In July 2004, the Ministry of Economic Affairs' Industrial Development Bureau launched a program to promote innovation and transformation in local industries and commissioned the MIRL to find local companies with which it could collaborate. This resulted in the Saxhome project, which is based on the standards of the best international saxophone brands and seeks to achieve the standardization of the masters' skills, which used to be passed on through oral teaching.

The first task was analyzing the materials used for making saxophones. The MIRL bought an international-brand saxophone costing more than NT$200,000, and found that the brass used to make it had a copper content of 65%, which makes it more difficult to work with than the 70% copper content in the brass used for Taiwanese instruments, but produces a more resonant sound.

Nor is the quality of Taiwanese instruments as good as that of Japanese ones as far as the electroplating and lacquering that determine the outer finish are concerned. On-the-spot inspections revealed that small-scale electroplating workshops in Taiwan often lack environmental isolation equipment. Sometimes, due to insufficient quantities, saxophones and different musical instruments or even other metallic products are cleaned in the same acid bath after electroplating, which can result in impurities being left on them.

A musical instrument's quality is determined by its pitch accuracy, sound volume, and timbre. Pitch and volume can be measured with sound meters, and in modern saxophones, the tone holes are machine made, which means that 100% pitch accuracy can be achieved. But timbre can never be completely mastered through quantitative means. Therefore the MIRL, working with National Tsing Hua University's anechoic chamber (the walls of which absorb all sound waves, so that no echoes interfere with the sound measurements), used a timbre analyzer to test the timbre of other saxophone brands, and established a timbre database to be consulted by Houli manufacturers for comparative purposes.

Nine of the 12 saxophone manufacturers currently in business in Houli have joined the Saxhome project. By means of cooperative marketing through an industry alliance, they hope to trumpet the Houli saxophone name.

A sax quartet

When his father died three years ago and he took over the enterprise, Chang Tsung-yao and his wife Wang Tsai-jui took stock and realized that in almost 60 years, the saxophone business had brought them neither great wealth nor great prestige, but it had enabled the whole family to be well fed and well clothed.

"Five generations have lived here, from old man Chang to our daughters. I get pretty emotional thinking about it," says Wang Tsai-jui. The couple have therefore turned the original factory building into the Chang Lien-cheng Saxophone Museum. The museum displays Chang's musical instrument drawings, saxophones he made with his own hands, as well as some of his ink-and-wash paintings. Chang Tsung-yao and his wife hope that the museum will become a cultural tourism destination and will help keep Chang Lien-cheng's flame burning.

"There's a group of people in Houli who play musical instruments, make musical instruments, and enable people around the world to make fine saxophone sounds." Houli saxophones featured prominently in a car commercial aired at the end of 2004.

The four sisters playing the sax on TV were from the fourth generation of the Chang family. Lead player Chang Yu-tzu, the eldest sister, studies music at National Taipei University of the Arts, and is majoring in the saxophone. The other three sisters, who are in senior high school, junior high, and primary school, are also fine musicians and have inherited a little of Chang Lien-cheng's style.

Chang Yu-tzu spends her summer vacations back home in Houli, where she has formed a sax quartet with her three sisters. The day before a performance, you can hear husky sax sounds, from classical pieces to Taiwanese folksongs, echoing from the museum.

Chang Yu-tzu says that she used to think that the unwieldy saxophone was a man's instrument. After she went to university, she heard many classic Western compositions for the saxophone, and came to appreciate the beauty of this instrument. Brimming with a 20-year-old's confidence, she says "I want play the sax like my dad, but I think I'll be an even better player!"

The Chang family has come a long way from the days 60 years ago when Chang Lien-cheng taught himself the art of saxophone making, to the Chang sisters' saxophone quartet. It's been a journey like no other.

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