Chen Wan-neng, the recipient of the 2012 National Crafts Achievement Award, was once a young craftsman unsure of his own skill and career path. Born into a family of tinsmiths, Chen grew up in an era when the tin ware industry was rapidly waning and traditional ceremonial objects were increasingly shunned upon. A one-way railway pass from his hometown Lukang in Changhua County to Taipei City, however, proved to be his ticket to success.
It was 1963 and 21-year-old Chen was broke. He had just spent the last of his cash on a six-hour train ride up north in attempt to find a buyer for his latest tinworks. It was a desperate gamble, but he had faith, for he knew this particular ceremonial set was unique and worthy of sale. By the end of the day, his innovative candlestick-lampshade unit had turned a reluctant shop owner, who originally claimed that the market for tin ware was dead, into an eager buyer who paid NT$1,200 without even haggling.
“I knew right away that I wouldn’t have to walk all the way home,” Chen recalled. The one-time purchase had turned into a long-term supply deal, but more importantly, it instilled confidence in the young craftsman who dared to embrace the traditional art form at its lowest point of popularity. In fact, it was a long string of seemingly unreasonable decisions, including the expensive choice of using 99 percent pure tin instead of the usual tin-lead alloy, that made him Taiwan’s foremost tinsmith today.
For example, his works shine with lustrous silver sheen and do not oxidize with passing time because of their low lead content. His eccentric habit of visiting zoos to decipher animal behavior has also given raise to the expressive feathers, furs, and strong muscle contour that characterize his works. Above all, as a preservationist and pioneer of tin-making, Chen is most proud of the continuation of his craft – his three sons have succeeded the family business, marking the fourth generation of tinsmith Chens in the heritage-rich Lukang village.
“It is important to innovate while preserving tradition.
Artwork carries tradition,
Tradition brings forth art,
They are inseparable.”
― Cheng Wan-neng