FEATURE: Taiwanese craftsman keeps traditional toy spinning

08/19/2012 12:20 PM
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By Elaine Hou, CNA staff reporter

Before there were trendy toys such as Barbie dolls or Sony Playstations, whipping tops were one of the most popular children's amusements in Taiwan, giving many children hours of fun. And while few youngsters play with the twirling devices nowadays, a Taiwanese craftsman keeps the traditional folk culture alive.

Yang Chin-fu, 73, is among a small number of craftsmen in Taiwan who still handcrafts spinning tops out of wood. He has run a small business of producing tops at his home in Daxi Township, Taoyuan County, for nearly 30 years.

Centuries ago, many carpenters in Daxi taught their children to make whipping tops for toys -- that was how the traditional craft originated in the township in northern Taiwan.

Unlike many other places around Taiwan, residents in Daxi have continued to play with such toys. The preservation of "an old-town atmosphere in Daxi" makes it possible for the local residents to maintain the centuries-old activity, local culture historian Huang Chien-i said.

Unlike Japan, where spinning tops are made from wood and iron, Taiwanese craftsmen produce purely wooden tops, according to experts.

As a child, Yang carved small chunks of wood into whipping tops to play with. Later he became a full-time taxi driver, but still made tops for sale as a side job.

During a recent interview with CNA, Yang said he mastered the skills through self-learning.

He has made tops in a variety of sizes, ranging from those as small as a fist, to large ones weighing up to 70 kilograms over the past years.

"It's interesting to make spinning tops," Yang said, adding that he has obtained a sense of achievement from people recognizing the quality of his products.

Yang, also a master of spinning the tops, said he was encouraged to begin the business of making whipping tops by friends who would gather to play with the ones he made.

"They said the tops I made were quite good to play with," Yang added.

At the age of 45, he turned a fun childhood activity and also his hobby into a side business.

The key to making a whipping top, Yang said, is to first find the central point of each piece of wood. This is to ensure the balance of the top so that it will spin steadily, he explained.

Despite being petite in stature, Yang can produce tops with diameters ranging from 10 centimeters to 60 centimeters.

It is difficult to make tops from big chunks of wood and create a beautiful shape, according to Huang, the local historian.

"But Yang can do it," said Huang, who has also been playing tops since his childhood.

He said the craftsman has played an integral part in "preserving the skills of making spinning tops."

Yang's works can be found in some stores on the old street in Daxi, a tourist attraction famed for its Baroque-style architecture built when Taiwan was a colony of Japan (1895-1945).

The old street is where local residents gather to play the tops, Huang said.

Meanwhile, Yang's products have been distributed around Taiwan, with some exported to Japan and the United States.

His customers range from university students in southern Taiwan to schools in Daxi. For example, he said, Mei-Hwa Elementary School has bought a number of tops to teach local students how to spin a top, as part of efforts to preserve the folk culture.

About five years ago, a Japanese television crew even traveled to Daxi to visit Yang.

Besides making whipping tops for the Japanese team, Yang, who can also spin tops in various sizes, said he also taught them how to spin the toys.

Neither a whipping top smaller than a thumb nor a top weighing more than 40 kilos is too hard for Yang to spin.

Orders for whipping tops, however, have decreased in recent years. Sometimes, Yang said he has to wait a couple of months to get an order.

But his passion for the traditional handicraft has not been dampened. He has no plans to stop doing what he's been doing for so long.

"Whenever I receive an order, I will do it," Yang said.

The craftsman also expressed regret over the fact that very few Taiwanese children play with spinning tops nowadays. They instead go for video games or computer games, he added.

"I've encouraged children in Daxi to play with spinning tops," Yang said. "Some of them have taken my word."


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