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Young entrepreneur, Qian Huaili eager to revive bamboo culture

Friday, 18 November 2016

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bamboo craft

It all started eight years ago, when 24-year-old Qian Huaili was reading “father of Japanese folk arts and craft” Sooetsu Yanagi’s book Culture of Industrial Craft and Handicrafts. Qian was a sophomore studying industrial design at Zhejiang University of Science and Technology. Earlier he had been reading a thick book about the history of industrial design in the West-a text that did not interest him.

“It’s all about the West, but we are in the East,” Qian says, sitting at the teahouse under Phoenix Tea, an internet platform in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province.

But when Qian found Yanagi saying: “Handicrafts are the most important part of local culture”, inspiration struck.

Qian was born in Chenzhuang village in Wuzhen suburbs, which has been famous for bamboo-weaving for centuries.

Although located in a flatland where no bamboo grows, the rich waterways in Wuzhen carry bamboo from mountains in nearby areas, like Anji county in Huzhou.

After the bamboo is made into woven products, the waterways connected with the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal transport them to buyers in the Yangtze River Delta and as far as the capital. Due to the toughness of bamboo, a well-woven product lasts decades.

Qian grew up watching locals weaving bamboo. So when he read Yanagi’s words, he found a way out of Western-dominated industrial design. He decided to return to the craft he had known since birth.

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That year was 2008-coincidentally when Wuzhen started tourism to develop Xizha. Qian’s father, a skillful master of bamboo weaving, was invited by the developer to open a shop in Xizha to sell Wuzhen’s local specialty.

Now when you wander in Xizha, you might come across a big circular bamboo plaque, on which the characters for “Wuzhen” are elegantly painted. Qian’s parents spent a whole month weaving the plaque, which has become an icon in Xizha.

While his father started the shop, Qian traveled to places in Zhejiang like Wenling, Dongyang and Anji, where the few remaining old bamboo-weaving masters live.

He aspired to learn the best skills from them, and they were happy to have a student. Otherwise, this craft that has been passed down for centuries would be lost.

However, Qian soon found problems with this time-consuming undertaking.

In late 1980s and early 1990s, when China had just started experiencing high-speed growth, the demand for bamboo products also soared.

But as new materials such as plastic became cheaper and fashionable, people were using fewer bamboo products for convenience. A bamboo basket is much heavier than a disposable plastic bag.

“When I went to primary school, fewer people in our village were making bamboo products. Now, very few old people are still doing it because it’s time-consuming and cheap,” Qian says.

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When the shop began, Qian’s father sold small bamboo plaques for 30 yuan ($4.4), which is more expensive than many similar products.

“But my father could only make two plaques a day,” Qian says.

He took out a photo album of his products and pointed at an elegant bamboo basket.

“It’s around 600 and 700 yuan, but selling at this price is like doing charity,” he says.

The basket was completely made by hand. After the bamboo stalks are cut down and transported to the workshop, they are boiled in a long metal container to remove the waxlike skin and other substances to make the material more pleasant to touch and see.

Then craftspeople strip the bamboo to useful sizes.

“This is almost the most difficult step. The thinnest bamboo strip can be only a quarter of millimeter in diameter-almost as thin as human hair. It’s done by hand,” he says.

Sometimes, craftspeople boil the bamboo in dyes before or after the weaving to cater to modern people’s taste.

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“You have to find very experienced people to do all this work so as to guarantee quality. Their labor is expensive,” he says.

Another problem Qian found is that bamboo products were previously mainly used by ordinary people, especially farmers. Bamboo goods were sold at low prices so every family could afford them.

“In our village, each family used to weave only one kind of bamboo product. But when you put all the products together, you can see the whole picture of people’s lives in old times,” he says.

“So even if you pour a lot of time and energy into the quality of a bamboo product, it’s not china or gem stones, so people will not pay high price for it-not to mention that people use almost no bamboo products in daily life nowadays,” he says.

For Qian, apart from mastering skills to develop fashionable products for modern taste, another important task is to promote a “bamboo lifestyle”.

He found wool-felt toys from the West have become popular in China because “people find them interesting and lovely”, so he repositions bamboo products as goods that are fun.

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He develops not only items based on traditional styles but also such products as hairpins and earrings. Besides cooperating with high-end brands, Qian has developed a way to promote bamboo products.

Inspired by the concept of such crafts as cross-stitch, which enable women to make pendant for their darlings, or make stitched versions of a famous painting such as Van Gogh’s Starry Sky, Qian chose 24 kinds of useful bamboo products that are easier yet still interesting to make. People can buy semi-finished products and make their own bamboo table mats, fruit trays and small baskets.

Not only can people buy all these products on Qian’s online shop on Taobao, they can also learn how to make the products by watching Qian’s video on Phoenix Tea.

For instance, Phoenix Tea promotes Qian’s products and the online classes through its offices at Peking University and Shandong University. Students can buy a package of bamboo strips and watch the video to learn how to make different pieces.

“Currently, the most important thing for me is to promote the lifestyle of bamboo. It’s something interesting, something that makes your life more colorful, rather than an old craft that is going to disappear. Then, this craft can survive,” he says.

Source by: Internet

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