Metalsmith and Master of the Tobacco Pipe

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Metalsmith and Master of the Tobacco Pipe

An old man sits outside on the porch on a beautiful spring day. Reaching into a pocket, he pulls out a smoking pouch. He carefully presses tobacco into a pipe, lights the pipe using a flint, and inhales deeply. His grandson, who is sitting next to him, watches the old man and, in curiosity, imitates him. "How dare you!" his grandpa yells, censuring his grandson's unknowing insolence and eliciting a few shocked tears from the boy.

This used to be a common scene in the old days when a pipe, ashtray, flint and tobacco pouch were your "four smoking friends," and were objects of pride for many smokers. But the booming popularity of cigarettes has rendered pipes almost obsolete, and their former importance has been forgotten in Koreans' daily lives. There is, however, a craftsman who has never stopped making tobacco pipes in a small village in Namwon, North Cholla province. He is Hwang Yeong-bo, 69, and he has been making pipes for over 50 years.

During the Choson Dynasty, tobacco pipes were called yeonjuk or yeon-gwan, and people used pipes of different lengths depending on their social status. Pipes also had various names - songhakjuk, yukmojuk, godaljuk and aegijuk among others - according to their shape and what they were made of.

Of all these different types, baekdong-yeonjuk pipes are the most beautiful. During the Choson period, baekdong-yeonjuk pipes were a symbol of opulence, and those who could afford luxury items might spend a lot of money on a baekdong pipe decorated in silver or gold.

The Korean word baekdong literally means white copper, but in fact it is an alloy of copper, tin and nickel. These three metals meld into the silver-colored baekdong when they are heated together in a crucible. The molten baekdong is then cooled and beaten with a hammer to make sections of a pipe such as the daetong (bowl), daekkobari (a curved section that supports the bowl), tori (the joint that links the daekkobari to the stem of the pipe) and muljuri (the tip or bit of a pipe). The dae (the stem itself) is often made of bamboo.

The toris of baekdong-yeonjuk are sometimes decorated with patterns such as apricot blossom, crane or dragons, with odong, another metal alloy of gold, silver and copper. Fine details, such as flower stamens, bird beaks or dragon eyes, are engraved with a thin chisel.

Mr. Hwang began to learn to make pipes from his father after finishing elementary school. Wangjeong-dong, the village where he grew up and still lives, was one of the best-known pipe crafting villages due to the abundant availability of bamboo. As Mr. Hwang recalled, "Behind the village there was a forest of bamboo trees, and all the houses in the village had fences made of bamboo."

Until the mid-1940s about half of the villagers earned their living by making pipes, and pipes made in the village were considered the best in the nation. In his heyday, Mr. Hwang made dozens of baekdong-yeonjuk every month and traded them at market - a pipe for a sack of rice. These days, his pipes are worth over 1 million won ($770) each, so not many people can afford the luxury of owning one of Mr. Hwang's pipes.

The pipe maker, whose pipes are as precious to him as his flesh and blood, does not seem to care much about the decreasing popularity of his products. But he said he does feel sorry that the joys of pipe-smoking have been abandoned in favor of cigarette-smoking.

"Smoking pipes irritates your throat less than smoking cigarettes, and pipes can be very useful in many ways. For instance, you can scratch your back with the stem of a pipe, or crack a walnut using its bowl," Mr. Hwang said. The glory of yeonjuk-making has faded gradually with the disappearance of bamboo trees from around the village and Mr. Hwang has moved his studio to the tourist-oriented Folk Village in Namwon.

But he retains his pride in his work. Today, the master continues hammering away, as usual.

by Lee Chul-jae

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