From Art Brush to Beauty Brush
From Art Brush to Beauty Brush
A Young Entrepreneur Explores New Ways to Apply an Age-Old Craft
Text: Paul Jacob Naylor
Photos: Maggie Song
When Lin Chang-long became the fourth-generation owner of a calligraphy brush-making enterprise, the brush-making industry was on the decline. Forced to come up with new ideas to stay in business, he created the LSY (LamSamYick) brand. Using his rich experience, and applying traditional techniques, he has developed new product lines such as cosmetic brush sets, and has successfully crossed over into a new field of trade: the beauty industry.
Lin Chang-long’s family is originally from mainland China’s Fujian Province. His grandfather and great-grandfather both worked as brush makers, exporting many of their brushes to Taiwan, where at that time there were very few brush makers. So when the family moved to Taiwan in 1945 it only seemed natural to continue its business from the clan’s new home on Taipei’s Chongqing North Road. At first, the family had many difficulties. Taiwan did not have all the necessary materials for brush making, and at the time trade with mainland China was not possible for political reasons, so the family sourced its supplies from Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong. Over the following fifty years the business grew slowly, until Lin Chang-long’s father decided it was time to retire and for his son to take over the business. However, Chang-long had just graduated from law school, and had his sights set on moving to Switzerland to study hotel management. This put him in a difficult position. “I come from a very traditional family,” he explains, “and when my father decided that I was going to run the family business, I had no choice.” He first worked as an apprentice in the business, making the brush handles and gluing the pre-made brush heads onto them. “The handle can be made of horn or bamboo,” he explains. “But it’s not important. Anybody could have done this job.” The making of the brush heads, however, is a task that takes many years to learn. Lin, as head of the business, commissions one of the 20 or so “master brush makers’’ who live in Taiwan to make the brush heads for his firm. Each master specializes in a particular type of brush, bringing many years of experience to the craft – from the finest brushes of only a few hairs’ width to massive brushes six feet long that are primarily used as ornaments or for ceremonial purposes.
The traditional method of turning a pile of animal hair into a brush takes 48 individual steps. For higher-quality brushes the process is repeated many times, to ensure the best possible result. “Even the simplest brush heads contain more than one type of hair, and in brush making, proportion is one of the important things,” Lin explains. “Each animal hair has its own particular quality, and each type of animal has many different types of hair. For example, the hair on the belly of the goat is very soft, so we use that for our make-up brushes. The hair on the legs is thick and hard, so we use that in brushes designed for the painting of pottery, which need to be more durable.”
Lin also uses pig and rabbit hair, but the best and most expensive hair, he says, comes from the male golden weasel. This hair is very elastic yet also very soft, ideal for calligraphy. By weight it is more expensive than gold. “Calligraphy brushes must be formed of different lengths of hair, in order to make a fine point,” he says, as he shows off his wares. “If the hairs were all the same length, it would look like a paintbrush. You see, the goat hair acts like a sponge, soaking up the ink, while the golden weasel hair, which is slightly longer, directs the ink onto the paper. With brushes such as these, you can write a large number of characters with only one dip of ink.” Indeed, according to tradition the calligrapher of Buddhist sutras should only dip his brush once to write a full sutra. This quality is thus not only convenient, but also essential for the passionate calligrapher.
After finishing his apprenticeship and officially becoming the new head of the family business in 2000, Lin realized there was a problem: the market for calligraphy brushes was on the decline. “When I was in school,” Lin recalls, “we had to write a diary and sometimes whole essays using a calligraphy brush. But that is no longer the case. Students are still a good market for us, but with the birth rate declining, this market is contracting.” Conversely, with people living longer, Lin’s main customer base is now male seniors, who have a lot of time on their hands and want to escape the fast pace of modern life by taking up calligraphy. “Nevertheless, as young people are not taking it up anymore, selling calligraphy brushes isn’t a stable business,” he says.
Years back, Lin did some thinking, and came to a radical conclusion. “In the modern market, nobody needs calligraphy brushes. However, I thought that since a brush had simply become ‘hair with a handle,’ I didn’t see why I couldn’t redefine the calligraphy brush to fit into a more profitable market.” That new market, he decided, was cosmetics. About 10 years ago Lin walked into a nail salon with his brushes. His claim that calligraphy brushes had a use in the fingernail-art business were rejected, but he tried again, and then again. His persistence paid off, especially as the brushes the salon had been using were imported from America and Europe, and Lin was offering a much cheaper price for his locally produced merchandise. His firm was commissioned to make a range of smaller brushes for the nail salon, and today he makes over 40 types of brushes for make-up and nails.
Lin shows off his latest product, a stubby, two-tiered brush designed to remove blackheads from the face. “With the calligraphy brushes, I was always the middleman standing between the master brush maker and the customer. Today, it is no different. Make-up professionals who commission new designs know the kind of brush they want; but as they do not know the art of brush-making, they cannot explain the practicalities of making such a brush to the manufacturer. I can.” In Lin’s eyes there is still much to learn in the transition from calligraphy to cosmetics. “My wife gives me lots of suggestions!” he laughs. “I get her to help me with all my new products.”
The initial reaction from Lin’s family to his new business direction was skepticism. Because cosmetics brushes are exposed to a lot more water than calligraphy brushes, Lin has to use artificial hair and plastic handles for most of his make-up brushes. “My father thought the plastic handle and artificial hair looked strange,” he says. “The traditional way to test the quality of a brush is to touch the brush to your tongue, and so that’s what my father did. He said the brush had good quality, and hasn’t said anything about it since!”
Despite his new business direction, Lin is still passionate about calligraphy. The knowledge he has gained about marketing, packaging, and product design while developing his range of make-up brushes has also benefitted his calligraphy brushes. This year he took what is perhaps his boldest step to date when he acquired the right to use the Hello Kitty logo to make a bright-pink calligraphy brush aimed at children. “This makes a really good present for someone,” he says, “and I hope that it may motivate more children to take up calligraphy in the future.” Another idea he is pondering: commemorative brushes made from the hair of a deceased family pet. “The idea is not mine, actually,” he says. “A Taiwanese family in Australia contacted me saying that their favourite pony had died, and asked if I could make a brush out of its tail hair. I did it, but to be honest, horse hair does not make a very good brush!
“My business model has always been to go step by step, to go naturally, slowly but steadily,” explains Lin. His philosophy has paid off. Today the traditional family business on Chongqing North Road is still going strong and his LSY-label cosmetics brushes are sold at two permanent stands, one at the Nanjing branch of the Shin Kong Mitsukoshi Department Store and the other, which just opened this year, at the Hankyu Department Store above MRT Taipei City Hall Station. “Of course, the customer bases for our two lines are very different, but for both types of customer satisfaction is key,” he says. “If the feel is good the customer will be happy and buy more brushes in the future. This is the concept behind all my products.” With a business outlook such as this, LamSamYick creations are sure to be in strong demand with both calligraphers and make-up enthusiasts far down the road.
Step 1 : Separating the hair from the fur
When a patch of hair is judged to be of good quality, the hair is separated from the skin and surrounding fur. Any remaining undesirable fur is sifted and discarded.
Step 2 : Sorting the hairs
The hairs are laid out flat and painstakingly arranged according to length. Any damaged or irregular hairs are removed.
Step 3 : Separating the hairs into different lengths
In preparation for the formation of the brush head, the hairs are grouped together according to length and type.
Step 4 : Mixing the hairs
Hairs of different origin are blended together in the designated proportion. To ensure an even spread and uniform position, and to make sure there is no unwanted material in the hairs, they are scraped with a boar-bone tool
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