“This is not wood; this is art.” So an artisan in Mas, a wood-carving district in Bali, described his carvings on one of our recent buying trips. The distinction is increasingly lost as commercial pressures lead to standardized and speeded-up production and traditional skills are lost as fast-growing economies in Asia attract artisans with better-paying jobs in the cities. The road to the capital Denpasar from the silver jewelry, painting, wood and stone carving villages is jammed every morning with motorcycles carrying young people on one-hour commutes to jobs in the tourist industry, garment factories, retail sector, government, etc. Computer skills pay far more than the ability to see the figure hidden inside a piece of wood. Such is progress.
And still the search continues: for hand-hammered silver elephants and fish in Cambodia; engraved silver pill boxes in Vietnam; lotus leaves and buds shaped from fabric in Thailand; rosewood jewelry boxes in China; hand-painted snuff bottles in Hong Kong; butterfly and bee mobiles from the Philippines; hand-painted blue and white ceramic jars and teapots from wood-burning kilns in Thailand; hand-woven silk in Laos; and hand-embroidered pictures in China.
Searching hard enough, we still find places where the old ways prevail. Leaving behind the noisy cities, we come across village work places on back roads still as monasteries except for a barking dog or radio playing softly in the background, where part of the day is reserved for ‘spiritual time’. In northern Thailand, craftsmen from young to old sitting at wooden tables or cross-legged on rattan mats tap intricate designs into ritual silver bowls, their hammers competing with the rhythmic chatter of insects in neighboring fields. Perhaps a machine could stamp out a similar bowl in a fraction of the time, perhaps not.
Here’s one hopeful note that will keep wood carvers across Asia in business for years to come, the huge, continuing popularity of hand-crafted laughing Buddhas. The laughing Buddha is considered by many to be symbolic of wealth, happiness, good luck and safe travel and is believed to bring joy, serenity, and contentment into the home. Buddha’s presence enlightens and enhances self-awareness, it is said, and rubbing the big belly of laughing Buddha, symbolizing abundance and mirth, is thought to bring good luck.
The reclining laughing Buddha carved from light-colored, richly-grained wood is among the best-selling designs in our airport stores in Hong Kong and Singapore. Standing and seated laughing Buddhas designed as incense burners are also popular and collectors, in particular, will appreciate the selection of laughing Buddha netsukes or miniature Buddhas. Seated Buddhas made from a composite of acrylic and resin were first discovered by Amazing Grace in Cambodia years ago. In jade, amethyst, amber and azure colors, they radiate a beautiful warm glow when showcased with a spotlight.