Gankeng, one of the 10 major ancient Hakka villages in Shenzhen, boasts a history of more than three centuries. The village, surrounded by green hills and clear waters, is primitive and beautiful. Architectural structures unique to Hakka culture can be found everywhere in the village, including blockhouses, deep alleys, the famous Phoenix Valley and the former residence of “Zhuang Yuan,” or Number One Scholar in ancient China.
In the past, it was a tradition for Hakka women to wear bamboo hats when they go out or work in the fields. Making a Hakka bamboo hat requires sophisticated craftsmanship. Throughout the making of the hat we can see how diligent and graceful Hakka women are. As the lyrics of a classic Hakka song go, “Hakka bamboo hats enjoy a long history, weaved with elegance and style. The craftsmanship of Hakka bamboo hats is well preserved, passing down our love and warming our hearts.”
Every few days, when Zhang Guanxian goes to a bamboo forest at the foot of a hill in the neighborhood, he selects the most suitable bamboo for making hats. Selecting an ideal bamboo is of great importance and a single segment should reach up to 60 centimeters in length. Thanks to the bamboo's smooth textures and supple fiber, the bamboo is the most preferred materials for making Hakka bamboo hats.
61-year-old Zhang Guanxian is one of the few Hakka bamboo hat craftsmen in Gankeng Village. He has been learning Hakka bamboo hat-making since he was 16 years old. His rough and time-worn hands mirror his devotion to the trade. The history of Gankeng people making Hakka bamboo hats can be traced back to more than 200 years ago and it has passed on through six generations. Zhang Guanxian himself witnessed the heyday of Gankeng bamboo hats in the last century.
Zhang Guanxian is skilled at “Yao Mie,” or slicing bamboo strips with teeth, and “He Mao,” pressing the two pieces of the hat together and applying tung oil. Zhang is using his teeth to slice the nearly 50-centimeter-long bamboo canes into slices that are as thin as paper and as pliable as muscles.
Zhang Guanxian’s apprentice Zhu Yixiang uses bamboo slices to weave the hat. Zhu cannot afford to make any mistakes since the weaving pattern is too intricate. There are two pattern styles of Hakka bamboo hat: Starry Sky and Emei Flowers.
Tung oil, thick and transparent, is a fine drying oil obtained by pressing the seed from the nut of the tung tree. Gankeng people have a unique method of making tung oil. Applying tung oil on the surface of the hat protects it from water and insects and keeps the hat shiny and durable. According to Zhang Guanxian, tung oil should be applied to a hat three separate times and then aired out under the sun before it can be considered finished, a process which takes about two weeks. Hats with poor quality tung oil, however, may not dry even after three years.
“Ma Zai” is a hand-made tool for combining the two parts of the hat together. They come in large amounts and different specifications. To better control the strength and radian, Zhang Guanxian goes bare foot and uses Ma Zai to combine the clip and body of the hat together, both in summer and in winter. He starts tying the edge of the hat with soaked thin bamboo slices, which usually takes 38 loops to complete.
Ling Fudi is the eldest bamboo hat craftswoman in Gankeng Village who is proficient in a variety of needlework. Ling is making the drapes of the hat cloth. After spreading out the cloth, she splashes water onto the fabric and then slowly folds 180 drapes. After folding, she will dry the cloth before sewing it onto the edge of the hat, which is basically the last procedure of a Hakka bamboo hat's production. Despite the fact that Ling’s eyesight is not very good, she completed the procedure efficiently due to her great familiarity with it.
The making of Gankeng bamboo hats requires 33 steps in all, each of which reflects Gankeng people's wisdom in dealing with weaving bamboo, fabric, dyeing and painting. It requires the joint effort of both men and women. However, there is no detailed written record about how to make Hakka bamboo hats; it simply depends on the master and apprentice to accumulate experience and pass on the craftsmanship. As Hakka bamboo hats are fading from the commodity market, its traditional craftsmanship is becoming a lost art.
In 2006, Gankeng bamboo hat was included on the list of Shenzhen Municipal Intangible Cultural Heritage. In 2013, it was included on the list of Guangdong Provincial Intangible Cultural Heritage. Veteran craftsmen like Zhang Guanxian and Zhang Hangyan are named by the country as inheritors of the Hakka bamboo hat.
To pass on the craft, Gankeng Village is calling upon villagers to learn Hakka bamboo hat-making. Zhu Yixiang and Zhang Ruizheng are the only two young adults in Gankeng Village who have learned parts of the process. Zhu mainly performs weaving and Zhang studies “Yao Mie” and “He Mao.”