2013 / 2月
Liu Yingfeng /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by David Smith
“New living” has recently come into vogue in old Tainan, which these days is a magnet for architects, designers, and travelers looking for an interesting city to settle in. In old shops that show the clear marks of time, young faces are starting to show up. Hidden away just off Tainan’s Dongmen traffic circle lies Mingzhang Tatami Shop, which has been in business for over half a century. Proprietor Hong Shiming and his grandson Hong Weijin run the operation together, with the younger man learning the ropes from the elder.
In a world where everyone seems to be chasing after the latest new trends, one nevertheless can find the occasional person who has found a way to breathe new life and excitement into the handicrafts of a time gone by. Hong Weijin, having grown up in a family of tatami makers, is now being groomed to take over the family business that his grandfather has spent a lifetime building up. He sees something precious in it, though others may not.
After graduating from the Oriental Institute of Technology in the Taipei suburb of Banqiao, Weijin returned to Tainan and took a job in a textile factory, where day after day he inspected fabrics. Short of age 30, he got tired of his job and remembered what older relatives had often said: “If you’ve got a special skill, you’ll never go hungry.” Rather than mope around in an unsatisfying job, he decided to step into the tatami making business that his family had been running for a half century. There he would keep alive a traditional craft that has been fading into oblivion.
In 2008 Weijin, then 26 years old, decided to return home and learn from his grandfather, Hong Shiming, how to make tatamis. As a boy, Weijin had often watched his grandfather in action. The latter would place a core of rice straw weighing nearly 20 kilograms into a wooden frame, encase the core in woven rush grass, staple the ends in place, sew a cloth border over either side, then lop off any extra straw from the ends with a sharp knife. Weijin had often watched it done, and it always looked so easy, but when he tried his own hand at it he at last understood the complexity of the task.
A standard Taiwanese tatami measures three by six Taiwanese feet (one Taiwanese foot equals 30.3 centimeters). A total of seven or eight processes go into the making of a single tatami, which generally takes from 40 minutes to an hour to finish.
When Weijin first started out, the inexperienced young man practiced on downsized tatamis. “The toughest part is sewing up the tops and bottoms. To keep stray ends from showing, you’ve just got to develop a feel, so that the needle pulling the nylon thread goes into the same needle hole each time.” Weijin lets his fingernails grow long to aid in the task.
For the past four-plus years, Weijin has witnessed his grandfather’s rigorous adherence to the old methods, and become frustrated with a lack of respect in Taiwanese society for craftsmanship. “In Japan, if you’re a chef or a craftsman or whatever, as long as you’ve developed a certain skill, you can hold your head high for what you’ve achieved. But I don’t feel like that in Taiwan.”
At Mingzhang, the tatami making process goes on in full view of curious passersby, who always seem to look a bit askance at the business, as if to ask: Does anyone still sleep on tatamis these days? Implied is a question about how much longer tatami making skills will survive. One time, a very young boy asked his father: “Can you earn any money making tatamis?” Weijin cannot hide his resentment as he recounts the incident.
Tatamis may be disappearing from modern homes in Taiwan today, but there was a time when they were in very high demand. Set to turn 81 this year, Grandpa Hong has been making tatamis for over 60 years, a period that has seen the tatami market decline from once great heights.
Born in 1932, Grandpa Hong’s formal education came to an end during the fourth year of elementary school due to war. To earn a living, he moved to the town of Madou in Tainan County, where he took up as an apprentice to a Japanese tatami maker. “That Japanese master would yell and hit me. I never had a chance to practice, so I had to do my sewing on the sly at the noon hour, when he napped.” After two years there, Grandpa Hong took a job at a yarn shop, but business declined as durable nylon fibers hit the market, so Hong decided to get back into tatami making. He opened Mingzhang Tatami Shop in 1963 on Tainan’s Minquan Road, and he’s done business at that location ever since.
Many government-run companies back then had Japanese-style guesthouses and employee dormitories with tatamis in disrepair, and they frequently posted public tender announcements in newspapers for contractors to repair or replace the tatamis. Grandpa Hong scoured the newspapers and traveled all over Taiwan to bid on jobs as far away as Luodong in Yilan County. Blessed with excellent people skills, he frequently managed to get jobs working for the Forestry Bureau, Taiwan Railways Administration, Taiwan Sugar, and other government-run entities.
Among the several fading black-and-white photos on display around the shop is one which shows a number of tatami makers sitting next to wooden frames, working away on their tatamis. This is what the shop looked like in its heyday. At the peak, Grandpa Hong employed a dozen or more master craftsmen, and each time he set out for an offsite project he’d lead a team of six or seven to do the job. He worked at least 16 hours a day, and delivered as many as 200-plus tatamis per month.
With Japanese-style structures disappearing and box-spring mattresses growing ever more ubiquitous, the use of tatamis has been on the decline. There were once more than 10 tatami shops in Tainan, but the number is now down to three. Craftsmen of Grandpa Hong’s generation have either died or have no one to whom they can pass their skills.
Recently, however, many architects and designers who’ve relocated to Tainan from elsewhere have become big clients, and are sparking a revival of the local tatami market. Young Weijin understands that appeals to nostalgia will not sell to younger consumers, so the Mingzhang blog shows photos of tatami floors in restaurants and playrooms, as well as living rooms partially floored with tatamis. The idea is to impress upon people that tatamis today need no longer be confined, as in the past, to rooms where people sleep or rest.
Weijin had never thought as a kid that he would one day take over his grandfather’s business, but now he bends intently over his work, impervious to the raised eyebrows of onlookers. Quietly toiling away beneath the old shop sign, he will use his hands to carry forward skills built up within the family over the course of a half century, one stitch at a time.