Nestled within Chiayi County's Sikou Township, the small town of Tianshe was known as the "Kingdom of Bamboo Baskets" in the 1950s and 1960s. There were at least 20 family-owned factories large and small around the area, and virtually everyone, young or old, male or female, was involved in the industry, their nimble hands weaving a Taiwanese economic miracle.
In the early days of Taiwan's export-oriented economy, the island's fruits and vegetables were shipped overseas in bamboo baskets. At a time when plastics and cartons were not commonplace, these baskets were prized as the most economical and environmentally friendly packaging material.
Tsai Shih-wei (蔡世緯), current director of the Lunwei Tianshe Bamboo Art Development Association, was born into a family working in the industry. His grandfather was a master builder of bamboo buildings and had the skills to whip up anything that came to mind — from chicken coops and fishing rods to entire houses — from bamboo. By the 1970s, though, such traditional skills fell out of favor as plastics were on the rise, and ultimately this once-powerful kingdom fell behind the times.
In 2012, to help preserve an industry on the verge of disappearing, Chen Wu-tong (陳梧桐) came back to Tianshe after some 30-plus years in Kaohsiung. Worried the hometown he remembered was soon to be completely lost to history, he brought together a group of local elders, village leaders, and the elementary school principal to form the Lunwei Tianshe Bamboo Art Development Association. By coming together to preserve the industry, the association members hoped to keep the bamboo culture of Tianshe alive for future generations.
The many faces of bamboo art
With a production process that is complicated and time-consuming, these traditional vessels are difficult to make with modern machinery. To transform bamboo into a variety of items and tools, the bamboo masters of Tianshe have honed a variety of skills capable of taking bamboo of various thicknesses through cutting, firing, folding, weaving, and tying to complete the process.
From weaving thick or thin bamboo to mixing the two, or the taxing process of firing it over high heat, bamboo art is a collection of unique and technical skills. To pass these skills on, the association has launched a range of work projects and assembled a "dream weaving team" to inspire exchange between residents and deepen cultivation of the art.
With bamboo weaving originally born of the need for everyday tools no longer so necessary, like chicken cages and fishing rods, the association works with experts from different fields on modern products like mailboxes, backpacks, pen holders, shopping baskets, and handbags. Such efforts are gradually attracting more and more partnerships with designers and hoteliers, revitalizing the traditional craft for the modern day.
Intangible culture and tourism asset
To boost the visibility of bamboo weaving, the community is working hard to promote the village as the to-go destination for bamboo-weaving culture. Upon entering Tianshe, one is quickly greeted by a park dotted with bamboo-woven installations — a distinctive landmark that leaves a deep impression on visitors and helps spread the word.
In addition, the association has also combined crafts with local tourism in a series of bamboo-related activities, such as DIY bamboo art classes and demonstrations on using bamboo cages to catch chickens. By turning their intangible cultural heritage into a tourist attraction, the villagers have been able to develop another source of income to support their heritage revival efforts.