Decline of a Traditional Artform

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    Step into Yuet Tung China Works, Hong Kong’s last hand-painted porcelain factory. Find yourself surrounded by stacks of dinnerware, each piece painstakingly decorated by hand with vibrant flowers, fruits, and animals. (AP/Kin Cheung)
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    A staff member works at the Yuet Tung China Works on June 8, 2022. (AP/Kin Cheung)
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    Joseph Tso, owner of Yuet Tung China Works, holds a porcelain plate. (AP/Kin Cheung).
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    Joseph Tso re-paints an elaborate porcelain plate. (AP/Kin Cheung)
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    The members of this small team are among the few people in Hong Kong who have mastered the traditional technique of painting “guangcai,” or Canton porcelain. (AP/Kin Cheung)
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    A staff member holds paint brushes. (AP/Kin Cheung)
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Brush, dab, brush, brush. Flowers, birds, and fruits emerge in vibrant colors on shiny white dishes. The detailed painting happens at Yuet Tung China Works, Hong Kong’s last hand-painted porcelain factory. The meticulous work is an art form—one that historians say is dying out with the men and women who produce it.

Joseph Tso is the third-generation owner of Yuet Tung. Stacks of dinnerware, each piece decorated by hand, surround Tso and his small team. They are among the few people in Hong Kong who have mastered the traditional technique of painting guangcai, or Canton porcelain.

Guangcai has a characteristic overglaze technique. To achieve the effect, a painter sketches a design on white porcelain, and then fills it in with color using thin brushes before firing the piece in a kiln.

“The most time-consuming part is planning out the composition,” Tso says. “All the masters are over 80 years old.” Each has worked at Yuet Tung for more than 40 years.

Hand painting is a fading art in Hong Kong’s modern metropolis. Fewer young people are willing to put in the time and effort required to master the craft or work at the factory full-time.

The work is fine, exquisite, and labor-intensive. Therefore, “Hong Kong’s traditional handicraft industry is gradually declining,” Tso says. “It will eventually disappear.”

Tso’s grandfather established the factory in a district of Hong Kong known as Kowloon City in 1928. It was the first porcelain factory in the city. Over the years, other factories sprang up, and the area became famous for its delicate craftmanship and custom dinnerware.

Yuet Tung China Works is known for its Canton rose porcelain painted with a pigment called xihong, which means “Western red.” Its ingredients include lead oxide, quartz, and gold dust.

The factory also sometimes paints family crests and hotel or institutional logos on dinnerware for foreign customers.

“Hong Kong’s export sector was booming from the 1960s to the 1980s, and many well-known department stores came to buy products,” Tso says. “Foreign trade firms would bring us business.”

Yuet Tung is an important part of Hong Kong’s history, says Yim Wai-wai, founding president of The Hong Kong Ceramics Research Society.

“The porcelain factory breathed at the same pace as the development of Hong Kong,” says Yim. “If it ceases to exist, it will be an immeasurable loss.”

The steps of a man are established by the Lord, when he delights in His way. — Psalm 37:23

Why? God delights both in details and in the use of His good gifts—like art and nature—in the creation of wares that offer usefulness with beauty.