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Bamboo weaver Huei-Ting Tsai revives a dying craft through meticulous research, education, and a whole lot of fingerwork

Huei-Ting Tsai
Huei-Ting Tsai has researched different ways in which bamboo has been woven.

In the western world, the idea of operating a bamboo farm might seem unusual. But in southern Taiwan, weaver Huei-Ting Tsai has access to than 200 species in her collective’s garden. It offers her and other craftspeople a wide variety of plants for each product that they create.

“We pick out the bamboo that’s best suited for that,” Tsai tells Pancouver in Mandarin. “Every species has a different characteristic to it.”

Tsai is from Tainan, which was once a thriving centre for bamboo weaving in Taiwan. During the Japanese colonial period from 1895 to 1945, the government transformed what was once a specialized craft into an industrial powerhouse.

Bamboo-weaving workshops in the rural Guanmiao District of Tainan and Zhushan Township in Hantou County led to explosive growth in the rattan furniture industry. However, the onslaught of industrialization—and cheap plastic products—eroded demand for these products in the mid-1950s. Weavers migrated to other occupations in search of a livelihood.

Huei Ting Tsai bamboo basket
Huei-Ting Tsai wove this bamboo basket, which was on display at the Migratino & Arts exhibition during TAIWANfest.

Tsai reveals that she discovered her passion for bamboo weaving in college. One of her professors practised this craft and introduced her to it. She notes that by this time, bamboo weaving was becoming a dying art.

So, she and others decided to revive this tradition. She gathered information from the elders about various weaving techniques. In addition, Tsai founded the Bamboo Says workshop to share these skills with others.

“Most of the elders are already in their 80s and 90s,” Tsai says.

Her intricate designs were on display at the Migration & Arts exhibition at Vancouver TAIWANfest over the Labour Day weekend. Vancouver artist Ann Fu translated Tsai’s Mandarin into English for this article.

bamboo
Bamboo craftspeople can make use of curving bamboo strands in creating household objects.

Dyes applied after bamboo is split

According to Tsai, the most challenging aspect is splitting this plant into strips so they’re thin enough to thread into baskets, chairs, and other everyday items. Most of the weaving is by hand, even for smaller items with many threads.

However, Tsai reveals that she uses little tools for the tiniest products, such as bamboo earrings. She says that the plant’s threads are well-suited for creating curvatures. As a result, she can weave them around drinking glasses.

“It gives you a textured grip, insulation, and protection,” Tsai notes.

bamboo 2

She applies dyes after the plant is split rather than before. And to her, the whole process reinforces the connection between human beings, nature, and culture.

In addition, Tsai enjoys repurposing traditional bamboo materials into new uses, such as coffee filters.

“We’re just trying to bring it back into daily life because it was very embedded in everyone’s lives in the past,” she says.

Huei-Ting Tsai bamboo
Huei-Ting Tsai wove this work of bamboo art entirely by hand.

The National Taiwan Craft Research and Development Institute and Vancouver TAIWANfest presented Migration & Arts at the SFU Segal Building in Vancouver from September 2 to 4. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.