2018 / 3月
鮮少人知道，吳哲叡的爺爺是台灣早期歌仔冊的知名作家梁松林，梁氏是台北萬華人，編寫歌仔冊數量為全台之冠，最著名的是1936 年前後，由台北周協隆書局連續發行的《三伯英臺歌集》（共55 本，各本另編歌名）。因為他是入贅，所以生的第一胎要跟太太姓吳，也就是吳哲叡的父親，全盛時期在萬華西園路一帶，至少有20間房子。
Ivan Chen /photos courtesy of Chuang Kung-ju /tr. by Jonathan Barnard
“Silverfish eat books,” explains Wu Jer-ruey. “If you’ve got enough books, they will come and gorge on them. Once that happens you are no longer your own master. You become the servant of the books, needing to look after them every day. In a sense, you become a servant of bugs.” Wu believes that when you are a paper conservator, simply having repair skills is not enough—you’ve got to continually read and research to extend your knowledge. Then you need to selflessly share that knowledge with your team and encourage innovation, so that your skills are passed down.
The chain of events that propelled Wu, currently serving as a consultant to the Taipei City Archives, to enter the realm of art mounting, bookbinding and restoration, stretches back to his childhood.
Parental role models
Few people know that Wu’s grandfather was Liang Songlin, a famous writer of Taiwanese ballads during the Japanese era. Liang lived in the Wanhua neighborhood of Taipei, and his output of songs was unrivaled. His most famous work was “The Sanbo and Yingtai Song Collection.” Because he married according to the custom of ruzhui, whereby the groom goes to live with the bride’s family to carry on the line of a sonless family, Liang’s first son, Wu Jer-ruey’s father, took his wife’s surname. At the peak of his wealth, Liang owned at least 20 houses.
But having a talented grandfather wasn’t much help to Wu, because Liang would end up squandering his fortune through gambling and opium. His later years were spent in poverty. Consequently, Wu Jer-ruey’s father told him from a young age: “Look at your grandfather: He made so much money and ended up losing it all. You are my child. I have chosen not to be corrupt, so you will have to be poor with me.”
Wu’s father worked at the Central Fish Market in Wanhua. He’d get up at 1 a.m. and get off work after 10 a.m. Whenever he had spare time, he would read and write. Wu’s mother earned money by working at home as a seamstress, making women’s clothes to order. Wu would watch her cutting out patterns and sewing the garments together. He was never a particularly good student, and Wanhua back then offered many paths to go astray. His father’s diligence and honesty deserve much of the credit for Wu’s hewing to the straight and narrow. But he inherited his dexterous hands from his mother.
The tracks of time
Wu attended Ger-jyh Senior High School in Sanchong, Taipei County (now New Taipei City). After school he would do his homework with a good friend who attended the Fu-Hsin Trade and Arts School. That friend would share what his teachers had taught that day. The two would often work together until 2 or 3 a.m. He regards that period as building a foundation for his later skills in color toning and applications.
A lover of stationery and writing implements, he worked as a delivery man for a stationery supply firm after he graduated and before he performed his military service. Upon his leaving the military, his old boss at the stationery firm, much to Wu’s surprise, asked him to come back to work, but this time in sales. It turns out that when delivering supplies, Wu had not only unloaded goods and asked for signatures but had also chatted with stationery store proprietors, seeing if they lacked anything and occasionally coming back with orders.
After working at the firm for two years, Wu determined that he preferred to make clothes. At first he didn’t know where to begin, so he started by selling fashion magazines to clothing shops. That gave him an opportunity to become acquainted with the individual style of each shop. Eventually he ended up choosing to work as a cutter for a company in Sanchong which made clothing for export. He learned a lot about fabrics there. Later he went on successively to study pattern making and design, and he eventually opened a finished garment factory with friends as partners. But when they needed to add more investment capital, he was forced to pull out because he lacked extra money to invest.
Whenever he had time apart from work, Wu took advantage of opportunities to advance his skills and understanding of cutting, pattern making and design. Looking back now, he believes that his thirst for learning came from his father. He would go on to work at various jobs, including cleaning leather and making clothes to order for guests at hotels. It was in this period that he welcomed his life’s first big turn for the better.
A life-changing encounter
When Wu Jer-ruey was tailoring shirts for foreign guests of hotels, he was often required to embroider English names. Back then few locals were up to the task, so he went to the Taipei Vocational Training Bureau to learn machine embroidery. The course included instruction on how to prevent puckering, including by mounting embroideries on cloth backings. The process caught Wu’s interest and prompted him to take another course on the mounting and framing of artworks. Afterwards, he decided to open his own mounting and framing business. But upon encountering the requirements of individual clients, he discovered that it wasn’t an easy business after all, so he began a journey of studying under masters.
To learn the techniques for making “album leaves” (ceye), wherein illustrations are mounted and bound in book form, Wu recounts how he paid NT$20,000 to be instructed by a master. Because he had previously already viewed the entire process, on the first day he asked the master four questions, but the master couldn’t answer any of them, so Wu walked out. Wu says that losing that NT$20,000 was no big deal, because money is for spending, but if he had carried on he could never have got the time back.
If he couldn’t learn the craft from a master, he decided, he would go into selling art mounting materials, so he applied for a sales job at what was then the largest company in the mounting materials trade, Hetai. But as it turned out, the company’s boss had recently died of cancer, and before he died had asked his goddaughter to return as bookkeeper in preparation for closing the company.
“I told them how disappointing it was to find them only to learn that they were closing. If they shut down, there would hardly be any such companies left in Taiwan.” The bookkeeper explained that there was no one to handle sales now that the owner had died. Wu volunteered to take on the responsibility of sales for the company, which had been around for more than 20 years, and he later convinced the bookkeeper to buy the company from her godmother, the late owner’s widow.
Afterwards, when he delivered goods, Wu would also observe the techniques of the companies that received them.
After spending all day delivering and observing, he would quickly return home to try out the techniques he had witnessed. If he encountered an issue doing it himself, he would find an excuse to go back even if the client hadn’t placed a new order. In this manner Wu would observe, study and gain mastery, so that later, when he employed 30-some-odd craftsmen, none of them needed to seek outside training. And as fate would have it, the move to Hetai was more than just a professional turning point: Wu would end up marrying the late owner’s goddaughter.
A second turning point
Opportunities come to those who prepare for them, and Wu Jer-ruey would enjoy a second fortuitous twist of fate. The Taipei Children’s Recreation Center holds an exhibition of traditional arts and crafts at the end of each year, where Wu would teach art mounting in order to promote the craft.
One year, a mother had brought her daughter to see the exhibition, and because it was near closing time, most of the stalls had already shut up. “She said that it was too bad the other stalls had closed and couldn’t be seen, but I said that I could at least unpack my half-packed stall and give them a look.” It led to an exchange of name cards with the girl’s mother—Hung Shu-fen, head of the Special Collections Division at National Taiwan University Library. It was through that connection that Wu would end up working for eight years with seven others on the restoration of the “Dan Xin Archives.” The archives comprise some 19,000 Qing-Dynasty official documents dating from between 1776 and 1895, from the Danshui Sub-Prefecture, the Taipei Prefecture and Hsinchu County.
Shortly thereafter, there came new challenges with a University of Tokyo project to restore stitch-bound books. On the recommendation of National Taiwan University Library, Wu worked with National Central Library experts to learn techniques for repairing stitch-bound books. He has thus become one of the rare experts in Taiwan with experience in restoring not only calligraphies and paintings, but also historical documents and old books.
Passing on a legacy
Wu flips through some of the colored papers he has developed, which he uses in his restorations. These are also suitable for use by artists for special purposes. One of his papers, “Summer Wind,” was created by accident. His house had been flooded, and after the water was removed, they discovered that some packs of paper that had been standing on the floor had acquired a unique pattern of lines that was quite pretty. Afterwards, he conducted tests with various quantities of water and consistencies of paper, making a series of adjustments before finally creating a type of paper with a distinctive pattern.
Wu has a special approach to teaching apprentices. He is completely open with his team, and holds back none of his expertise and techniques. He believes that only when everyone is openly contributing what they have developed can innovations occur and advances continue. It is his responsibility to foster each student’s special qualities and potential.
Currently, he’s working with a Vietnamese student named Bui Tien Phuc, who says: “I think that Vietnam needs these kinds of restoration techniques. Our teacher has a great sense of humor, and he is both good at his craft and good at teaching it. Not long ago, he went to Malaysia and Vietnam to teach about restoring old books.”
Another student of Wu’s is Chou Wei Hsiu, a graduate of the master’s program in innovation and design at National Taipei University of Technology. “Before coming to study with Wu, I did a lot of research,” notes Chou, “and what I’ve ended up learning with him has truly met my expectations.”
Wu sincerely believes that there is a duty toward history involved in restoring old things. One couple brought Wu an antique collection of nanguan musical scores to restore. Wu refused payment, but he hopes to have the restored work scanned as an image file and placed in the collection of the Taipei City Archives. Many of the musical pieces in this 300-year-old collection have been lost from the nanguan tradition, but after restoration there is a chance that they can be performed again. Regarding his own future, Wu hopes he will have the opportunity to restore paper documents found in archeological excavations. Whether he actually will is hard to say—because his life so far has consisted of one surprise after another.