As we approach the next industrial revolution, we’re slowly seeing more machines replace manual labour. It’s common to see processes being automated for mass production, displacing the role traditional craft used to play in our society.
Chua Yi Min is one Malaysian who’s fighting hard to keep this heritage alive. Though it started out as a simple side job, cultural art has now become her full-time passion.
And now, she aims to carve a safe spot of this art in our society.
Keeping Up With The Carving
As far back as she can remember, Yi Min has had some interest in woodwork.
At the age of 14, she helped out her family by working as a restorer of old furniture during her school holidays. But then she found herself continuing this passion project even after graduating with a degree in interior architecture.
“I have always wanted to improve myself and enhance my self-value further. I thought I could do this by expanding my knowledge on woodwork. So I learnt the basis of wood carving from a master in Melaka at the end of November 2015,” shared Yi Min.
She continued to hone her skills, working on a variety of hand-carved items to be sold, such as wood signages, wood stamps and customised art pieces.
Most of the people who frequent her workshop are from educational institutions, temples and business companies that purchase her wood pieces for decor. Some customers have also requested for customised wood pieces to be given as special gifts.
“It’ll take two days for simple pieces, and more than 10 days for the more difficult pieces,” said Yi Min.
Throughout her career, Yi Min has done hundreds of wood carving pieces but there are a few which stand out to her. She recalls of a piece with a storyline where a boy and a girl are sharing a comfortable moment, talking while looking up at the starry sky.
“I spend a lot of time carving out the full details, even on tiny pieces, to give them all a unique story. I always think those moments really drive me crazy, but it’s all worth it at the end when I see the finished piece.” – Yi Min
Sharing Her Expertise
Yi Min shared that dabbling in the art market and the wood carving business was enough to give her sustainable profit, but she saw another avenue.
Wanting to preserve the traditional art of wood carving, Yi Min began holding workshops in June 2017 to introduce the cultural art to people that may be interested in giving it a try.
“People can come to my workshops with no experience. I’ll personally go through the process one by one so they can learn everything at their own pace,” said Yi Min.
For RM220, you will be spending approximately 3 hours with Yi Min with all the materials provided for the class. You’re also able to bring your own handicraft home with you as a souvenir.
At the moment, Yi Min mainly conducts her workshops in Johor and Kuala Lumpur but in the future, she hopes to see opportunities that could bring her classes to Penang and perhaps even to Singapore.
The Hardships Of Saving A Dying Art
But with any form of traditional art, gaining interest from the current generation is always tricky.
Yi Min told the tales of her challenges in promoting traditional wood carving to people, concluding that it all comes down to thinking outside of the box.
“I have to think about what else I can do besides the traditional wood signages. It’s a constant journey, seeking for new ideas and concepts to attract young people to have more interest in wood carving and accept our traditional techniques,” said Yi Min.
She tries to reflect that in her art pieces. Calligraphy found its revival by appealing to the modern aesthetic, with over 7 million posts on Instagram just under one hashtag; Yi Min takes the same approach, hoping to modernise wood carving to have a similar appeal.
Using digital platforms is one way for her to further her reach to potential learners. She stumbled upon local tourism platform, LokaLocal, on Facebook and got in contact with them to feature her wood carving workshops.
Since then, she’s seen a wider influx of people inquiring about her workshops which gives her the reassurance she needed to continue pursuing this career.
“I found out that they could help connect me to people from other cities, which was great for my classes. Thanks to them, more people know about me and what I’m doing right now,” said Yi Min.
Aside from that, Yi Min also works with art studios, cafés, art events and educational institutions to help with her mission.
In the future, she hopes to have her own showroom or studio to display some of her pieces so that maybe more people would be interested in wood carving. She feels the disappearing culture needs more attention to be properly preserved.
“Wood carving is a lost art and it will keep losing if it doesn’t get more attention. I hope that our government can help to promote traditional techniques like this in every way they can,” said Yi Min.
This article has been republished from Vulcan Post and written by Iylia Aziz.