“I started Coutou for myself. I wanted to share my thoughts regarding environmental issues, like how to make use of Hong Kong’s trees and the resources we have,” said Yan, carpenter of Coutou. Working as a carpenter in Hong Kong is like finding your path amidst tall weeds, which is how the name Coutou (which means “weed”and “path” in Chinese) came to be. “But now I feel that the name is a bit tricky. Some of my friends just can’t say it correctly,” Yan said with a smile.
There was a time when Hong Kong was severely hit by a typhoon and tens of thousands of trees were downed. As a result, Yan received numerous inquiries about wood recycling. People were concerned; it turned out that the trees that had long been living with us were incredibly fragile. People didn’t want to lose them, so they wanted to find ways to preserve them. “I’m not a big fan of trees, but it’s such a waste to see the used wooden furniture and the woods end up in the landfill. If they are burned, at least they can be transformed into biochar that can be of good use. I used to be really mad at the Environmental Protection Department, but then I realized anger doesn’t do anything. Even if they are not up to par, we should encourage them to do better.” Nowadays, Coutou works together with the Environmental Protection Department on research regarding trees in Hong Kong. “The environmental protection policy that we have right now is better than before. We have Y Park and the GREEN — COMMUNITY campaign; but we are still far behind foreign countries for they have initiatives such as afforestation and proper procedures in handling used wooden furniture. Although environmental awareness has generally increased in Hong Kong, we still have a long way to go.”
Prior to becoming a carpenter, Yan studied in France and had dreams of working at a renowned advertising agency in Hong Kong, making a lot of money and enjoying the finer things in life. “I lived poor in France but I was happy. My soul was satisfied. And I eventually came to understand what life is about. After returning to Hong Kong, I didn’t work in an advertising agency as I thought I would. Instead, I spent some time living day-to-day with no job and no desires. I often went to the seaside to cycle. It was a carefree period and I was basically out of touch with Hong Kong. I realized that living is more important; even if you make a lot of money, you’re not guaranteed to have a good life.” Later on, the idea of picking up a skill came up and Yan decided to go to Taiwan for a month to learn carpentry. Upon returning to Hong Kong, she connected with an old carpentry master via a friend and subsequently started teaching classes together. “In the past two years, we focused on training young carpenters. The ‘Made in Hong Kong’ label is no longer restricted to only small handicrafts. We now have a small factory and are producing large furniture.”
One has to have a strong intention or aim if they want to be a carpenter in the modern world; though such intention might change over time. Two years ago, Coutou moved into a bigger unit in an industrial building in To Kwa Wan and had enough money to hire an extra pair of hands. At that time, around 200 people came for interviews and Yan spent time meeting and chatting with each one of them; though only one of them was hired. Yan said that it didn’t matter whether the new hires have any experience in carpentry and she didn’t mind if the young people just wanted to give it a try because they felt lost; she would listen to their thoughts and stories regardless. “This is about inheritance, or giving the young person a chance to see something different. Carpentry is not only about hands, but the soul too.”
“Eventually I came to the understanding that the world has changed. If we can’t even care about our youth, don’t even mention caring for our natural resources.”
For carpenters, the first and foremost in timber cutting is to look at the wood’s grain and consider how it can be best presented in a new form. It’s the communication between the carpenter and the wood. “Every time I pick up the kettle and see the wooden table underneath it, I just can’t help admiring it. It is really beautiful! I have a wooden board hanging on the wall in my home. It is Yakusugi, a Japanese cedar. It is just like a painting. I look at it every day and it makes me feel good. Maybe because I like wood grain so much, I can see its beauty.” Yan said that she can remember the grain of each piece of wood, and if she could make mahjong with wood, she’d probably be winning all the time. “You will always feel the beauty of solid wood. It is not shiny, but comfortable.”
The operating sound of the cutting machine could be heard occasionally during the interview. The other carpenters were all focusing on their task. Silence prevailed, as calm as the sea outside the window. “Honestly, I was surprised by the 200 people that came for the interview. I’d never thought there would be so many people interested in carpentry. It would be great if we could hire them!” In addition to hiring more young apprentices, Yan wishes that she could build a Japanese-style wooden house. “The most stunning wooden building in Hong Kong is the main building of Chi Lin Nunnery. It’s not very big, but the design and craftsmanship are extraordinary. Building a wooden house is impossible; because according to the fire safety ordinance, building a wooden house is simply not allowed in Hong Kong. Earlier on, I made two really large tables for Kubrick. The structure is like a house. I even made a canopy which makes the whole thing look like a Japanese-style building. I had great fun working on this project.”
“‘Made in Hong Kong’ is not mere words; it’s also a representation of quality and beauty. That’s why it cannot be easily replaced.”