The Amazing Bamboo



An (Almost) Obsolete Material Survives in Modern Times

Text: Owain Mckimm
Photos: Maggie Song

It’s difficult to articulate just how important bamboo is in Chinese culture. One could perhaps compare it to the Japanese fondness for paper, or the Korean obsession with kimchi, but neither comparison would express just how thoroughly bamboo has permeated Chinese daily life for several thousands of years. You cannot build a house out of kimchi, nor can you eat paper. Bamboo, however, is both a foodstuff and was once used liberally in both construction and interior design. But there is more – much more – to it than that.

At one time, bamboo was used to make items as varied as raincoats, children’s toys, back scratchers, and pillows. As recently as the turn of the 20th century, people would sit on bamboo chairs at bamboo tables, eating bamboo shoots from bamboo bowls using bamboo chopsticks, perhaps with a bamboo hat on their heads and bamboo sandals on their feet.

Even before the Han Chinese began immigrating in large numbers to Taiwan in the 17th century, the island’s indigenous peoples had themselves been using bamboo for multifarious purposes – making fish traps, armor, musical instruments … the list goes on. And though not as ubiquitous as it once was, bamboo pulp is used to this day to make the ghost money burned to appease gods and ancestral spirits. The divination blocks and lots used when beseeching blessings or counsel from the gods are also bamboo-made.

And if you’re still unconvinced as to bamboo’s importance in Chinese culture, one last fact should do the trick: Bamboo is an essential element in the Chinese system of writing, and not just because it’s used to make calligraphy brushes. To clarify, Chinese characters are, generally speaking, made up of two parts: a radical and a phonetic element. The radical is the semantic element of the character – it expresses, if you will, the essence of the thing that’s being represented. “To cook” (烹) for example, is written with the “fire” radical (灬); “ant” (螞蟻), with the “insect” radical (虫). The characters for “pen” (筆), “basket” (籃), “abacus” (算盘), and “box” (箱), along with hundreds of others, are formed using the “bamboo” radical (⺮). This puts bamboo, which belongs to the grass family, on a par with materials such as wood (木), stone (石), and metal (金) in terms of usage as radicals in other characters.

However, although bamboo is still present in some aspects of Taiwanese life, times have changed. Taiwan once had a flourishing bamboo economy, with all kinds of different species grown – from the 50-meter-tall giant bamboo to the miniscule dwarf white-striped bamboo, a mere ten centimeters in height. Zhushan (literally “Bamboo Mountain”), a town in southwest Nantou County, was once at the center of this industry, but its hillsides, then covered in bamboo groves, are now covered instead in more lucrative plantations of tea bushes and betel-nut trees. The replacement of traditional materials with plastics and synthetic composites has largely killed the bamboo market in Taiwan. Bamboo, for all intents and purposes, is today an almost obsolete material – a callback to a bygone age, like pewter, ebonite, or ivory.

There is at least one man in Zhushan, however, who is standing in bamboo’s corner. He has taken this all-purpose material, once known as “the poor man’s wood,” and is making it into something chic, modern, and even artistic. Liu Wen-huang, founder of Bamboola Taiwan, designs bamboo items for almost every facet of modern life; perhaps more importantly, he does so for the modern-day consumer who values style as much as substance.

After arriving at Liu’s small factory in Zhushan, we are taken upstairs to the exhibition hall, where we are seated on bamboo chairs around a bamboo table and served tea brought in on a bamboo tea tray. It’s immediately apparent why Liu’s products are suited to the modern market: the furniture, the shelves, the wall paneling – none of it looks like bamboo.

When one thinks of bamboo furniture, for example, one thinks of hollow segments of bamboo, perhaps lashed together at right angles with twine, to make items that are a little shaky, a little rudimentary. Despite bamboo’s reputation as being very strong, notably in its use as a scaffolding material, products made from bamboo have always, to me at least, seemed somehow all too rickety, all too likely to splinter under pressure. But Liu’s wares have none of this frailty about them. This is because rather than cobbling together segments of bamboo stalks to make his large repertoire of canes, vases, bookshelves, tea sets, chopsticks, kitchen-knife sheaths, spectacle frames, and so on, Liu instead has bamboo wood fused into planks, as one might do with engineered wood such as MDF or plywood.

Processing the bamboo involves first stripping it – he uses four-to-five- year-old moso bamboo – of its pith, which leaves about half a centimeter of usable wood. The bamboo is then cut into strips, which are glued together under high pressure into planks or panels. Back in Liu’s factory, these planks are cut into shape, sanded, and treated with several coats of lacquer before undergoing carbonization – a steaming process which effectively caramelizes the sugars in the bamboo, giving it a deeper, richer color.

Liu brings a selection of bamboo boxes over to the table. Their smooth, seamless look is striking. It’s almost as if each has been carved from one solid block of wood. Liu explains that this is because no nails or screws are used in the making of his products. Instead, he makes almost exclusive use of the mortise and tenon joint – an ancient joining technique in which a protruding section on one piece of wood is inserted into a cavity in another.

“Try to open it,” he says, pointing to the box I’m examining. I pull at the lid, but it doesn’t budge. I run my fingers over the box trying to find a hinge or a latch of some kind, but there are none. It seems to be impenetrable. I hand it to Liu, confused. He takes it in his hand, tilts it forwards 45 degrees, and slides off the lid. We now see that set in the rim is an irregular wheel. When the box is flat, the hump of the wheel blocks the lid from opening. But tilted at a 45-degree angle, the wheel tilts to reveal a flat edge, allowing the lid to slip over the top.

Of course, the boxes on the table are no ordinary containers. They are examples of Lin’s signature product: puzzle boxes. Liu has designed about 54 of these to date, and plans to finish with a set numbering 100 in the next few years. Each box is unique, opening only on the discovery of a secret panel or pressure switch. Due to the small scale of Liu’s operation, only about 300 of each one is ever made.

Liu has achieved a masterly balance of practicality, craftsmanship, and novelty in his creations, which is perhaps what makes his work so suitable for the 21st century. He shows us a range of covers for iPhones and USB sticks, and then a series of egg-shaped salt and pepper shakers. Each is beautifully grained, and has a clean, lacquered finish with Liu’s name engraved on the back along with the date of completion. They all look expensive, well crafted, unique – exclusive items that do not look at all out of place in the home or hands of a fashionable urbanite. And that, it seems, is Liu’s secret. He has made bamboo fashionable.

 

English and Chinese

Liu Wen-huang劉文煌
Zhushan竹山

 

Bamboola Taiwan (大禾竹藝工坊)
Add: 7, Lane 362, Yanxiang Borough, Yanxiang Rd., Zhushan Township, Nantou County (南投縣竹山鎮延祥里延祥路362巷7號)
Tel:(049) 263-5206
Website: http://www.bamboola.com.tw
Bamboola has branches in several locations around Taiwan, including Taipei, Yilan, Taichung, Kaohsiung, and Tainan. See the website for details on products and store locations.

 

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