A trip back to my home village in the summer made me keenly aware that the village now is not the village then. Most folk I met about the village were either kids I did not know or aunts and uncles, and great aunts and great uncles, who were in their sixties and seventies. Ways of life there are far removed from what I remember of the early 1970s, my childhood years. In this blog entry I will tell my readers of a couple of trades that are no longer found in a Chinese village.


The Tofu Man


Before the Chinese New Year, every family in my village would make tofu. Because of poor skills, some families would end up with tofu that looked ugly and tasted plain. In my village one family made tofu the year around, for that was their family heritage. According to father, their tofu making dated back to a time when the village had been taking shape in ancient times.


The Tofu Man and our family were actually distantly related because the whole village was almost all Wangs. Their tofu making was completely free of modern appliances. The beans, which had been soaked the night before, were ground into paste on a mini hand stone mill; the paste was then strained through a white cotton cloth, separating soya milk from the solids. Next, the milk was heated to boiling point in a wok before it was scooped into an earthenware vat. The right amount of some mineral was weighed out on a small scale and dissolved in water. The solution was sprinkled onto the boiled milk in the vat. After curds took shape, they were scooped up and wrapped up in a cloth. The resultant bundle was pressed down by a wooden board with a stone on it. After some hours, tofu was ready.


The Tofu Man was a master of his trade. Some farmers often consulted him about the tofu-making process. My father once asked him how much mineral should be applied to the tofu he was making. He asked father about the quantity of beans used, and instantly came up with an answer. Also even in summer the Tofu Man could keep his tofu fresh for a fortnight. At that time there was no power and hence no modern refrigeration in the village. No one knew his secret.


I visited the Tofu Man as a boy and witnessed the tofu-making process, which was also what my father went through when he was making tofu at home for the New Year. Throughout the year when we had guests or visitors, mother would ask me to go and trade soya beans for tofu at the Tofu Man’s. A handful of beans would get me a large cube of tofu. His tofu tasted great. I often cut a slice of it and ate it fresh. Now an urban dweller, I miss that taste.


The Fireworks Man


Another family in the village was expert at making firecrackers. Actually no other family around the neighbourhood could do it, so their business was exceptionally good, especially around the New Year, a time when every Chinese family exploded fireworks for celebrations.


The Fireworks Man was my father’s great uncle, so he was my great great uncle. All members of his family helped in the process in the season.


He purchased second-hand books, which were sometimes difficult to come by in those hard times. I remember I sold some of my old textbooks to him. The pages were torn off the books and processed on a wooden roller, which consisted of two parallel planks, one over the other. The roller, simple as it was, was magical. A paper was wrapped around a pin before it was placed between the two planks. Then the top plank, pressed down against the bottom one, was moved to and fro. The pin was thus spun between the two planks. The resulting roll, with the pin pulled out, would be filled with explosives. The roll had to be really compact. Otherwise the crackers would not give off a crisp loud bang when set off. The last step of the making was to fuse the crackers. A thin wire, the fuse, was inserted into the roll, after which the roll was sealed.


Firecrackers were seldom sold individually. They were strung by the fuses. A string of firecrackers was then packaged for sale. One string could have 100, 200, 500, or 1,000 crackers in it. Prices varied depending on the number of crackers in a string. When the fuse was ignited, the crackers in a string would go off successively.


The explosives were concocted by the Fireworks Man himself. He bought several ingredients from some shops, and one ingredient charcoal was prepared at home. I do not know the exact makeup of the stuff, but having watched him making the works, I remember that charcoal and sometimes fine iron powder were part of the mixture.


Their business, one of its kind in the farming community, was best around the Spring Festival. So when most families were busy spending, they were busy making money. But their schedule was so tight in the season that their Spring Festival was not properly observed in my memory. The week before the New Year, all the members had to stay up to process the fireworks. And sometimes the mother even did not have time to cook a proper meal.


The Fireworks Man was worshipped by all the kids in the village, me included. Around the New Year, exploding fireworks was one of the few joys we could have in days of no TV, no radio and no cinemas. On the first day of the New Year, we would rush to his house when they started setting off crackers. While doing so, the Fireworks Man would toss some unexploded crackers to us. We were too ready to pick them up. Later during the festival we would play with them. While scrambling for the crackers on the ground, we kids could not help exclaiming, “So many!” And this was what the man desired to hear from us, for “So many!” was considered auspicious on the first day of the New Year.


The Lacquer Man


The Fireworks Man was versatile. He was also the Lacquer Man in the village. As crude as his craft was, what he did impressed me deeply.


Some of the bowls his family used for meals were made by the Lacquer Man. It was not made of china or baked clay but of grass and lacquer. The bowls, pitch black, gave off a gloss in daylight.


On the hills around my home village grew the lacquer tree. Most folk dreaded it. Some people, who happened to touch the tree, would contract a terrible allergic condition. The skin would go fiery and itchy, and the inflammation would not be gone for weeks or months. The sufferer ended up with blisters all over. That was painful.


The Lacquer Man did not fear the plant. Instead, he visited all the lacquer trees regularly with a large bowl in hand. After a cut was made in the bark, a black sap trickled out and was collected in the bowl. The sap was brought home and further processed. The lacquer that the man thus made from the sap was applied over his furniture, and as mentioned earlier, their eating bowls were made from grass and lacquer. A grass, locally dubbed ‘dragon beard’, was woven into a bowl shape, which was repeatedly coated by his lacquer over some time. Neither their furniture nor bowls looked good, for the black colour always gave me goose pimples. Coffins at funerals in the farming community were of the same colour. Very likely they were brushed with the natural lacquer too.


The Lacquer Man probably sold his wares. But it was such a long time ago that I do not have the haziest recollection of it. One detail that I am sure of is that his lacquer was indeed applied to coffins, because at the time no industrial varnish was accessible to the villagers.


The Millers


The two millers in the village were Lian and Quan. They ran their two separate mills at two sites where the river water could be harnessed. Interestingly enough, they were not related to the Wangs in any way.


Their mills dated back several generations. Some farmers, who lived a long way away from our village, came to the mills to get their grains ground and processed through a sieve into flour or cornmeal, there being no other water mill within a 10-kilometre radius. My village is sited in a vale with a stream flowing all year round. Water from the stream, which was channelled into the mills, powered the huge wooden wheels, which in turn drove the grinding stones. The water wheels sang along while the grinding stones were rotating.


A surreal image was still in my mind. Some girls, who returned to the village to visit their parents, came to the water wheel and sang songs that I had never heard before. I remember that the girls, whose voices floated to my innocent ears, were veiled in the mist. At the time I imagined they were fairies from heaven.


Of course before electricity was available, the mill was an only choice for the farming community. As you might know, mills powered by water were really slow. It might take half a day to process a family’s wheat or corn, so actually the mill had to run non-stop, even at night, because there was a long queue waiting there.


Rivalry arose between the two millers. It seemed that Miller Lian attracted more customers, which stirred up the resentment of Miller Quan’s wife. The woman did something that made big news in the rural community. One snowy night, she carried firewood to Miller Lian’s mill and set the workshop ablaze. When the local police came to investigate, they found a trail of footprints in the snow, which led them to Miller Quan’s cottage. And the footprints were evidently those of a pair of bound female feet. (Bound female feet were a custom before Qing was overthrown.) Miller Quan’s woman was bound-footed. The case was quickly solved and the perpetrator was imprisoned. This all had happened before I was born. When I was a kid, Mrs Quan had been released and I saw her often. But the whole village knew the story.


After a little power plant was built on the river and electricity became a reality, more and more families turned to electric mills. Yet the water mills kept running for years side by side with the modern ones. By 1982, they had become as extinct as a dodo.


The Dyer


I often wore clothes made from homemade fabric in the early 1970s. Lots of peasant women spun cotton into thread, which was later woven into cloth on a loom. My neighbour, a great aunt, wove every night on her loom, and the sound of her weaving, teeda, teeda, teeda, lasted throughout many nights. There were nights when I was woken up by the noise. I opened my eyes and saw complete darkness around. Then I drifted back into dreams.


The handmade fabric had to be further treated before being used for tailoring. One step was to have it dyed. In a neighbouring village there was a dyer. I did not venture into his workshop. For two terms, my schoolroom happened to be in their village, so I got opportunities to see the dyers hanging long strips of cloth on racks as tall as a four-storey house. Black and blue were dominant colours. Only occasionally did I see red and green on the rack.


At the time I thought my black cotton-cloth wear stupid-looking, for mother made it out of the handmade fabric. Luckily almost all my peers were clothed in the same material and in the same colour. Looking back on those years, in winter the cotton-padded coat and trousers were very warm indeed though they made me look like a bear. Usually for the first couple of weeks after putting them on, I would feel very clumsy, all fingers and thumbs.


The Carpenters


Of all the trades then, carpentry was the most common for in my village alone were several practitioners. Not being full-time, they took up their tools when there was work available. Some made furniture like tables and chairs, cupboards, and wardrobes; some built farmhouses. Some worked at their family cottages; some went to work where a hirer lived.


My father was one of the carpenters. He learned the trade as a teenager, and became very successful. Most of the time he worked at home. If a family needed to have a table done, they would have to carry the timber to my family yard, and father would saw the wood, chop and plane the planks, and put the table up in a matter of a few days. All work was manual, with such tools as axes, planes, chisels, nails and glue, and there was no machinery involved at all. As far as I can remember, the most gruelling part was to saw a log into planks. Often father needed his apprentice to work with him for the saw was too big to handle alone. My brother or I sometimes substituted for the apprentice, and that was tons of sweat. The arms and back would be aching days after the work.


Carpenters charged a fee for the furniture they made. If a carpenter went to work at a hirer’s, the family had to provide him with three meals a day. And those meals were normally intended for guests and visitors. That was a great motivation to become a carpenter in times of austerity. The best thing about being a carpenter, however, was not that his own family had comfy beds to sleep on or the carpenter was well fed, but that his family would never run short of firewood. While my neighbours often had to fuel their cooking with grass, thorns, or stalks, my family had a good stack of the bits and ends of wood left over from father’s work. That was great!


The Oil Squeezers


Cooking oil or fat came from two sources in my village, sesame and hogs. Sesame plants were raised in hilly plots; their seeds were processed into oil by the oil squeezers.


Peasants for the better part of a year, the oil squeezers were not full time either. When sesame was harvested, farmers from around the community came to their workshop and bartered their sesame seeds for oil. No fee was charged, but I bet they made a profit by fixing the ratio of sesame to the amount of oil it was bartered for. And the sesame cakes, which were the solids left over from the squeezing, belonged to them.


The oil making process was labour intensive. The seeds had to be steamed first so that oil would come out readily. After being heated up, the seeds were stuffed into a wooden press. The workers then squeezed in wedges. As more wedges were hammered in to the press, oil started to ooze out. Hitting the wedges in was hard work. I saw the squeezers slamming down on them, the upper part of their body bare, and a loud cry accompanying each go.


Walking by the workshop was an olfactory feast, for the smell was nice and strong. And if I was lucky enough, the squeezers would offer me a piece of the sesame cakes, which were left behind after oil was extracted. The cakes were normally used as animal feed or fertilisers, but they tasted good when there was little stuff in your tummy. A lot of my buddies then liked them. Once I saw the squeezers at mealtimes, holding a bowl of steamed noodles glazed with sesame oil. Lord, the colour, and the aroma, that was mouth-watering. Mother could never afford as much oil in her wok.


Death of the Trades


Now in the 21st century, in my home village, all the trades described above have died except for carpentry. Technology has rendered them obsolete. No family still makes tofu in the traditional way. The Fireworks Man passed away decades ago; with his death fell the Lacquer Man. His grandsons left the village and worked in the south as migrant workers. Where the water mills were creaking for ages, there are brick and mortar homes. The dyers would be teased if they were still practising their craft today. Who on earth would make cloth and clothes by hand? The oil squeezers, should they still do the trade, must be relying on machines.

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