Despite suffering from dwindling business, 78-year-old chick weaver Lau Chee Wah has no plans to hang up his work tools.
The third generation to run the weaving business “Lau Hoi Kee” that is named after his father, Lau said that over the years, he has seen a change in trend in machine-manufactured Venetian blinds replacing man-made chicks.
He explained, “As the number of skilled and experienced weavers decrease, their wages have increased, making it more expensive to custom make chick blinds. Of course, the implementation of the broad-based consumption tax recently didn’t help matters. Therefore, the cost of raw materials has risen in tandem too.”
Today, prices at “Lau Hoi Kee” start from RM8.50 per square foot, with additional charges for artwork and installation. As such, one should be ready to fork out at least a couple of hundred Ringgit for custom-made chick blinds as opposed to RM50 for one bought off the shelf.
He added, “Still, unlike machine-made products with their standard measurements and fixed shades of colours, customers can custom make chicks in any size or material either for their home or business premises to suit their needs. Also, chicks, besides being good controller of light and ventilation, make excellent advertisement boards. Do you know, there are companies that sponsor chicks for small businesses, such as food stalls, in return for “free” advertisements?
“My customers can ask for any colour to be painted on their chicks. There are some who request for drawings or have special designs in mind. These are done by artists who come in as and when required. Thanks to technology, it’s no longer a chore to draw on the chicks like how it was done in the old days. Now, everything is designed to perfection using a computer and subsequently printed on paper. The piece of art is then traced on to the chicks. Once that’s completed, colours are filled in. However, in some instances our artists will still hand draw, which takes more time.”
According to the order received, Lau works with nipa palm, bamboo or wood such as those of Jelutong species specially bought from Butterworth, that are custom cut to one-inch strips. With these strips placed horizontally, Lau secures them together using fine steel wires or nylon strings tied vertically.
Flimsy as they may look, the lifespan of chicks depends on how diligent the owner is. As a rule of thumb, chicks have to be rolled up if the wind blows too strongly so that they don’t get damaged through flapping in the wind. Moreover, a new coat of paint has to be applied at least once every two years.
Based on the size of the request, the time required to weave chick blinds varies. Lau explained, “The minimum size I would accept is three feet wide while the maximum is ten feet. Although I can single-handedly complete a ten-foot piece in two to three days, sometimes, I will engage one or two helpers for rush orders.
“And then, there’s the undercoating and painting, which requires another day to fully dry. Manual work is definitely time consuming and one should allow at least a week before picking up an order.”
While local folk may find it a bit of a hassle to custom make these chick blinds, it is quite a surprise to learn that Lau does off and on receive international orders, from as near as Singapore and as far as Europe and the Middle East. Apparently, tourists would walk by his shop and seeing what he does, place an order.
The unassuming bachelor was unfazed by the appreciation shown by foreigners for his craftsmanship, saying, “I am happy that there’s still a small demand for handmade chicks. Besides its practical use, chicks can double up as decorative art pieces for the home due to the fact that there are unlimited colours, designs and weaving styles to choose from.”
As one of the last Mohicans in chick weaving in Ipoh, once Lau retires, he is aware that his business will go with him. None of his siblings are interested in the trade, and even though they also learned the craft from their father just as Lau did growing up in the same household, they opted for greener pastures and built careers in other fields as they couldn’t see a future in chick blinds.
For Lau, though, having spent his whole life in this shop in Ipoh’s Old Town, and having helped out his dad in the business since before he even started schooling, life revolves around weaving these plain strips of nipa palm, bamboo and wood, and turning them into modern masterpieces of art.
Note: An edited version of this article [Master of blinds] was published on 30th May, 2015, in the now-defunct The Malay Mail.
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