Tales told in tiles

Weekend Glitz | Crystal Wu 22 Jan 2021

Karen Cheung grew up on the other side of the mahjong table. Her grandfather set up the Fuk Hing Lung mahjong factory in 1963. By the time it was passed on to her father, Ricky Cheung, it was one of the largest factories in the industry in Hong Kong.

As a child, Cheung would spend a lot of time in the factory watching her father carve the tiles, which her grandmother and aunties would paint and her uncle, polish.

Unfortunately, even with her father's efforts to modernize, the family business was not able to fight off competition from the mainland and it had to close down in 2009. "The craftsmen who learned the craft suddenly found their talents to be useless," she recalled.

Cheung has always been creative. She tried studying art in high school but gave up as she felt like she didn't have the talent. "Five years ago, I picked up the pen again to draw," she said. "Initially, I drew scenes from my travels."

Then she felt compelled to document the stories of the mahjong factory. She started drawing the tools that her family used in their craft. "It was that illustration that got people to notice my story," she said.

One factory was keen to develop her first mahjong-inspired designs and products. Her first design, the Travel Mahjong City, features a laser engraved, gradient effect design on some of Hong Kong's districts with a wordplay on the winds tile. It won her design awards.

It also meant that she could invite her father back to doing the craft he loved. The father and daughter duo started to work together in designing and crafting new designs into the traditional mahjong tiles in the hope of reviving and conserving the dying craft. This led to the opening of the Karen Aruba Studio in September at the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre.

In the converted factory estate are illustrations depicting the Cheung family story, as well as historic exhibits such as tiles manufactured by Cheung's family factory. It also hosts new designs and pigments that are not traditionally found on the game tiles.

"When I think of new designs, I always keep in mind my father's craftsmanship. I do not want the whole product to be machine-made. My whole family lost their jobs due to machinery in 2009 and I especially treasure that time-consuming craftsmanship." Her latest is a display set of Chinese zodiac symbols painted in metallic red and green, as well as bronze.

She is holding an exhibition and open studio called Wanderlust in Mahjong Craftsmanship every Saturday until February 27. The tile-coloring workshops, however, are canceled until further notice due to the pandemic. More information is available on www.karenaruba.com.

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