GEORGE TOWN: Tong Wing Cheong is on a mission to preserve the traditional art of woodcarving.
It took the 33-year-old, who has a Masters in folk culture from Taiwan’s National University of Tainan, a year just to learn how to sharpen the tools of his craft when he took up the trade in 2013.
“It is not easy, especially when it takes so much patience and perseverance to master the traditional art. For one whole year, I was only learning how to sharpen the tools required for woodcarving, not wood carving itself.
“Eventually, I understood why mastering tool sharpening itself was important. A good and sharp set of tools will ensure a smooth carving process and it makes the work much lighter, ” said Tong, who now has his own studio in Lorong Carnarvon.
Tong can now complete his carving – from wooden and ancestral tablets to trinkets and even the traditional Hokkien glove puppets – with seeming ease.
Having learnt his trade from Master Yeap Siew Kay, he started pursuing the craft as a full-time career in January last year and with his own studio, he is now able to take up on-the-spot wood carving works after years of practice.
Tong said he has always been fond of culture ever since he was young.
“It was how I eventually ended up in Penang after I graduated in 2012 as my attention turned to George Town after learning that the city had been recognised as a World Unesco Heritage Site.
“At that time, there were many projects to preserve, conserve and document on the living heritage in Penang, ” he said, adding that was how he chanced upon woodcarving.
“I was instantly captivated. I thought I had to learn this after realising that the best way to preserve these heritage and living cultures is to learn and pass these down.
“Throughout all my years in academics, whenever we talk about heritage preservation, they were really just to learn, record and document, which we see as a form of preservation.
“But regardless of the number of books or documentation we have on a folk culture, if no one picks it up, it will eventually be lost.
“This is why I think it is important to pick up the art, crafts or culture. These things are living practices, as they cannot be taught through records or documentation.
“You need the hands-on experience, which many may not have the patience and perseverance for nowadays.
“Wood carving involves culture and folk art on many levels, and many motives are involved in each piece.
“I hope that as we carry on with the practice, people would still find appreciation for this art and that it will be carried through to the future, ” said Tong, who is from Klang.