A Master of Folk Culture: Jhuang Bi-fei's Handmade Fishing Nets／莊碧飛 常民文化的編織之美
A Master of Folk Culture:
Jhuang Bi-fei's Handmade Fishing Nets
◎English translation: Peng Hsin-yi
◎Photos by Pao Chung-hui
Cijin is one of Kaohsiung's most popular tourist attractions. Its charming ocean scenery and fresh, delicious seafood never fail to satisfy visitors. But there is another, quieter side of Cijin worth exploring. There are artisans on the island who still make fishing nets and boat propellers by hand. When they work, no detail is neglected. This is where one can see how ocean traditions have taken root in Taiwan's Maritime Capital.
Mr. Jhuang Bi-fei, a fishing net artisan, was born and raised in Cijin. Now 82, he has lived and worked all his life in Cijin. He was a seaman like his father, and when he turned 58, he retired from the seas. However, he did not retire the skill of making fishing nets he had acquired during his years working on boats. After "retirement" he started making nets for carrying glass jars. The steps by his front door became his new workplace, and in his practiced hands a roll of nylon twine became a grid, and then a net. He sometimes makes nets to order, but often makes them just to pass time. Across the street, just a few steps away from his house, is Jhongjhou Fishing Harbor. On the dock, fishermen patch up nets torn during a recent voyage. It is a precious moment in a fishing town, tranquility utterly undisturbed.
Mr. Jhuang says these days no one wants to learn how to make nets. He explains that fifty years ago, net-making was considered a woman's job, but since he worked on a fishing boat, he learned to do it so a voyage would not be cut short by a broken net. He started to experiment with different ways in order to improve his skills, and finally figured out a way to produce the most effective net. Now retired from the open sea, the years he spent perfecting his net-making skills are not wasted. He started by making smaller nets which have various practical everyday uses. Sometimes he accepts commissions from his friends in the fishing industry, from big pieces like a boat's bumper to small items like a hand-held net. Whether he works with glass fiber or simple nylon strands, he always starts with a design that suits the user's needs, and makes a product that is practical, durable and attractive. No detail is too small; he even considers how much future maintenance will be required. He works at a steady rhythm, and the product is delivered once he is satisfied with it.
As Mr. Jhuang makes a net for carrying a glass jar, he says the idea came to him randomly one day. He simply thought the jar would be safer if carried in a net, and this kind of item has become his signature work. One of his friends saw this kind of net and asked Mr. Jhuang to make another, and then he started to receive orders left and right. To date, he has made about fifty. Even with something as small as a net for holding a jar, he gives his best. With the enthusiasm of a true artist, he demonstrates how to use single knots and double knots in intervals to crochet the twine into a net. He has to calculate carefully to ensure the space between each line is even, so the net is pleasing to the eyes. The most challenging part is tying up the bottom. Each knot has to be tied with care and in the correct order. Even though what Mr. Jhuang makes these days are insignificant household items, he never cuts corners. With pride, he says his nets are far superior to machine-made equivalents.
Looking at Mr. Jhuang's work, one can not help but feeling a bit sad, knowing that this skill, and the beauty of meticulously handmade crafts, will be no more when he is gone. Right now, in the presence of a living, breathing folk-arts museum, we can still have our breaths taken away by the unparalleled beauty of simple things.