[ZOOM KOREA] This master silver craftsman was born without a silver spoon
The English idiom “born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth” is used to refer to people born into wealthy families. Silver crafts have long been a symbol of wealth and could only be possessed by the nobles and the royal families during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Hong Jae-man, 63, who is a descendant of a Korean independence activist, is Korea’s representative master craftsman for silver kettles.
Though he works with silver all day and night, Hong wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth. In fact, Hong says his poverty-stricken childhood was what influenced him to become a master craftsman in the field of silver. As his family was too poor to educate Hong, he had to give up his studies and support his family at the age of 13. The very first workplace his grandmother had taken him to was a metal craft workshop run by his uncle. The workshop became Hong’s new home as he had to eat, sleep and master the technique there.
Life in the workshop for a young boy was not easy, Hong recalls. With the slightest mistake, Hong was hit by older and tougher-looking men at the workshop. He was so tired that he had to hide himself in a cubicle to get some extra sleep. When it was just unbearable, Hong ran back home to his mother’s arms, but every time, his grandmother dragged him back to the workshop.
Hong soon realized there was no exit. He accepted his fate and hardened his heart to craft the technique. Even after everyone else left work, Hong stayed behind in the workshop, trying to master the techniques, beating the hammer until two or three in the morning almost every day. Being left-handed, it was difficult for him to use the tools that were designed for right-handed people. But he gradually got used to them too. It actually allowed him to use both hands freely — a great advantage in such a workplace.
Hong says it was poverty that allowed him to become who he is today. But what if he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth?
Hong’s ancestors were in fact very rich. It is said that his family once owned the majority of land between Jae-dong to Changshin-dong in central Seoul. Who ran through this great fortune? It was his grandfather Inam Hong Byung-gi (1869-1949), who dedicated his life and wealth to fight for Korea’s independence. Hong’s grandfather is one of 33 independent activists who adopted the Declaration of Independence on March 1, 1919, announcing that Korea would no longer tolerate Japanese rule.
Hong’s metal craft skills that began at age 13 reached the level of completion when Hong reached his 20s. He honed his skills by beating metals tens of thousands of times a day. Physically, he was a mess, but he didn’t care. In the meantime, he was able to produce a variety of products ranging from trophies and jewelry to boxes ceremonial items and tableware. He finally reached a level where he was able to make any item that he wanted. His favorite thing to make is silver kettles.
Hong creates his silver kettles using a traditional method that other craftsmen can’t easily imitate. The entire piece, including the spout, is crafted from a single sheet of silver. In addition, the technique of applying gold to embossed and engraved patterns is almost unique to Hong.
The technique of making bowls by hammering silver is not unique to Korea. Neighboring countries like Japan and China also have such techniques, however, Hong insists both fall behind in reaching the level of Korea's as Japanese products lack robustness while China’s metal crafting techniques were only recently revived after disappearing during the Cultural Revolution.
Hong’s silver kettles are in fact more popular in China than in Korea. As drinking tea is common in China, silver kettles are considered a symbol of wealth. When you boil water in a silver kettle, the taste of the water is said to become softer and deeper. Therefore, it is said that tea lovers prefer drinking tea using silver kettles as they can better enjoy the original taste and aroma of the tea.
Hong has a dream. He wants to create unique silverware that will be used for ritual ceremonies in cathedrals or Buddhist temples and wants to leave them behind for the future generation. He also hopes to create an artwork that represents his life, that transcends time and is preserved generation after generation — a national treasure.
It’s been 50 years since Hong first began working as a craftsman. There’s no part of his body that does not ache. He has some regrets about the education that he missed out on but he has no shame as he has lived his life putting forth his best efforts every time. Every time Hong engraves a pattern onto one of his silver kettles, he says he also engraves on his heart the virtues of always being considerate of others and living righteously as a descendant of an independent activist.
BY PARK SANG-MOON [firstname.lastname@example.org]