By Mark Caltonhill

Learning from an Old Dragon Boat Master

It's a lazy mid-morning by the Keelung River in the north of Taipei City. It's so quiet, in fact, that it's hard to believe Sanjiaodu Wharf is really in Taipei. An occasional cyclist whirs along the bike path connecting this, the area where the Grand Hotel is located, with Guandu and Danshui; retired fishermen (and perhaps, one dreams, even one of the old ferrymen) start to prepare lunch in their community cabin; and a line of old sampans tied to the pier rock gently up and down.

The only real activity is taking place in an open-sided shed nestled against the levee. Sheltered from the sun — and rain when inclement — an elderly man is planing down a length of wood measuring about a dozen yards long by a foot or two wide and a couple of inches thick. After every few strokes he rubs it with his hand, then drops his head to stare along its length. Every few minutes he checks the angle with a joiner's square, then checks that against the angle of another plank nearby. Clearly the two must match precisely.
Perhaps everybody on this island knows about Taiwan's dragon-boat races, held annually on or about the fifth day of the fifth lunar month as part of the Dragon Boat Festival. Many overseas visitors come especially for the event, having learned about it while attending races organized by overseas Taiwanese communities in Europe, North America, Japan, or Australia. They may even know something of the history of the occasion, which is said to date back to the suicide drowning of poet-statesman Qu Yuan (ca. 340~278 BCE) in China's Miluo River — though the vast majority of Taipei citizens do not themselves know there is a temple dedicated to Qu on the Waishuang Creek just a few hundred yards from Sanjiaodu — and they may also have eaten the sticky-rice zongzi traditional to this day, which are said to represent the tidbits thrown to the Miluo fish to persuade the fish not to consume Qu's corpse. What almost no one knows, Taiwanese and foreigner alike, is that all the wooden boats used in the various dragon-boat races throughout northern Taiwan — as well as many of those used elsewhere around the globe — are made by one man. That man, the man planing the wood in his shed at Sanjiaodu, is 68-year-old Liu Ching-cheng, known as A-cheng to all those in the international dragon-boat-racing and local fishing communities who are aware of him and his five decades of work.

Putting down his tools for a chat — though not going as far as pulling up a chair for a rest — Liu explains that in the olden days dragon-boat racing could occur at any time of the year. Fishing teams from one village would compete against those from another to see whose young men were stronger and had more stamina. It was a natural extension of their everyday lives and the harsh physical environment in which they lived.

All the wooden boats used in the various dragon-boat races
throughout northern Taiwan are made by Liu Ching-cheng In the Taipei Basin, the rivers were at one time an integral part of the lives of many if not most people; even if they did not rely on fishing for their livelihoods, people needed boats to convey their agricultural or industrial produce to market, and, in the days before the motor car, river transportation was much faster than going overland. Naturally, the artisans who built the wooden boats used for fishing, shrimping, and shellfish collecting on the rivers, as well as transportation, also built the longer dragon-headed boats used on special occasions.
Liu started in the business apprenticed to his father at the age of 18, and has known no other trade. The Lius, who as boat-builders go back four generations to the Qing dynasty, made rivercraft throughout the fifty-year period of Japanese rule (1895-1945) and now the sixty-four years of existence of the postwar ROC on Taiwan, providing employment for up to seven or eight people in addition to family members during the golden era. They were originally just one of several boat-building families. By the time the river-based fishing industry died a decade or two ago after a long, slow decline, Liu says, he had personally built around 80 percent of all the wooden craft active in the area — as well as hundreds of dragon boats — but after that time years went by when he got no orders at all. He has been the only boat maker who hasn't switched to fiberglass, however. For his commitment to retaining traditional skills, Liu was awarded a "distinguished citizen" honor by the Taipei City Government in 2003.
Fiberglass is lighter, faster and above all cheaper, Liu explains. With a typical eight-pair dragon boat — which, including the rudderman, drummer, and flag snatcher, carries a total of 19 competitors — made of up to 500 kilograms of local cypress or oak timber and costing around NT$650,000, price is evidently a significant factor. Liu's biggest boat was for sixteen pairs of oarsmen. By building smaller boats or using imported Indonesian luan, as he is on the day of Travel in Taiwan's visit, Liu can save his clients around one-third of the price. This is still nowhere near the price of manmade fibers, however, which can be about half the price of traditional wooden boats.
Liu's commissions these days come from city and county governments rather than local fishing teams, and he makes as many as four each year. Each boat takes about a month from when he first sketches a design and calculates lengths, widths, and angles to the moment the dragon's eyes are painted, which allows the boat to take to the water. In keeping with established tradition, both the date when the first plank is sawn and the date for painting the eyes are decided in accordance with the recommendations of a Daoist priest based on the lunar calendar.

Each boat takes about a month to build, from drawing
first sketches to painting the dragon's eyes

The boats start with a flat central section, to which two similar pieces are added on each side and running the full length of the vessel, meaning the hull consists of five planks of wood joined together side by side. The natural flexibility of the timber is used to create the raised prow and stern. Seats are added later, and lastly the dragon's tail and head are fashioned and the whole boat painted. With good maintenance and occasional repairs, a boat will last 15 to 20 years, Liu says.
Liu's mission is not just to preserve traditional skills, however. He is keen that dragon boats return to their original role in society and are used 365 days a year. With this in mind, there are always a couple of boats tied up alongside the smaller fishing vessels at Sanjiaodu.
Indeed, during our visit a dragon-boat team turned up to practice. The team's coach, acknowledged that they chose Sanjiaodu for their practice sessions rather than Dajia Riverside Park, where the city's races are held, or Bitan, location of the Taipei County-sponsored event, simply because boats are available year-round rather than just for a few weeks before the races.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, given their rigorous training over a period of three months, the team has been champion of the intra-governmental agency competition for the last ten years and has only ever lost to another similarly enthusiastic team.
Just as teams turn up to practice in the weeks and months preceding the races — which are held in May or June depending on the lunar calculation —most of Liu's commissions come in at the last minute.

"I tend to work intensively for two or three months before the Dragon Boat Festival," he says, "but have little to do for the rest of the year." This, he suggests, is the main reason none of his four children have followed in his career choice. Young people don't want a job without a regular salary and good future, he says.
For quite some time it seemed, therefore, as if Liu's skills and the centuries of accumulated knowledge passed down to him would retire with him. Over the last couple of years, however, a local car-repair mechanic has been working alongside Liu. Asked how long it would take his apprentice to learn enough to continue the boat-building on his own, A-cheng is non-committal, saying it will take as long as it takes. No doubt many dragon-boat enthusiasts around the world hope that won't be too long. This year's main races will be held May 28-30 at Taipei's Dajia Riverside Park, and May 28-29 at the Dongshan River in Yilan.
For a smaller but perhaps more old-fashioned event, head to the Waishuang Creek at Zhoumei. Here, after the effigy of Qu Yuan has been properly worshiped, wined, and dined the local people, including two teams of retired fishermen, use a pair of Liu's boats to keep tradition alive. You can also snack on those zongzi that Qu does not require.

A-cheng 阿正
Bitan 碧潭
Chang Chin-kuei 張進貴
Dajia Riverside Park 大佳河濱公園
Danshui 淡水
Dongshan River 冬山河
Dragon Boat Festival 端午節
Grand Hotel 圓山飯店
Guandu 關渡
Keelung River 基隆河
Liu Ching-cheng 劉清正
Miluo River 汨羅江
Qu Yuan 屈原
Sanjiaodu Wharf 三腳渡碼頭
Waishuang Creek 外雙溪
Zhoumei 洲美
zongzi 粽子



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