Upholding a Tradition: Master Mold Maker Cai Rongxing

Cai Rongxing insists on carving cake-molds by hand, and hopes to pass down the skills far into the future. (photo by Jimmy Lin)

Cai Rongxing insists on carving cake-molds by hand, and hopes to pass down the skills far into the future. (photo by Jimmy Lin)

Cai Rongxing was born into a famous Yilan woodcarving family. His father, Cai Huotu, was the winner of a Folk Art Heritage Award, and Cai learned his superb craftsmanship directly from his father and elder brothers. Besides sculpting temple furniture like his father and brothers, Cai is especially skilled at making cake molds and rice-cake molds. He insists on carving them by hand, and hopes to pass down cake-mold making far into the future.

Through half a century of woodcarving, Cai has not only held fast to traditional craft techniques, he has displayed a playful creativity that has stayed in step with the times. In 2010 he won an Outstanding Cultural Product Award from the Council for Cultural Affairs. His key fobs in the form of miniature rice-cake molds carved with Chinese surnames have become favorite souvenirs for tourists and also fine gifts given out by the Yilan City Office to distinguished foreign visitors.


Century-old craftsmanship

“With proper care, my rice-cake molds will last 100 years without breaking,” says Yilan-born Cai Rong­xing, his smile betraying his confidence and satisfaction in his own work. “The hardest thing about rice-cake molds is that you have to correctly calculate the volume of the mold to give the cake weight required by the client.” Rice-cake molds are carved from a single piece of wood. It takes great skill and experience to select the material, accurately gauging the length, width, and thickness, and to precisely calculate the depth of the mold cavity.

“I’ve made a rice-cake mold with a capacity of 84 kilo­grams,” says Cai, smiling proudly. When the Yilan Museum of Art opened in 2009, the sight of the enormous mold, nearly two meters tall, awed the visiting crowds.

“The wood carver I most admire is my father.” When Cai Huotu, the winner of a Folk Art Heritage Award, was young, he took his wife and children off to distant Heping Island in Keelung for a showdown with a craftsman from Taipei: Each was responsible for the woodcarving on one of the two sides of the same temple, and each displayed a different style. The story of this event remains a favorite local tale to this day. After Cai Rong­xing graduated from primary school, seeing how hard his two elder brothers had to work carrying out processes like buffing, planing, and carving patterns under their father’s strict supervision, he thought about abandoning the arduous life of the family business and leaving home to find his own fortune. But after seeing too much of the colorful attractions of the outside world, he came to the realization that he should accept his fate, and returned home to buckle down and assiduously learn from his father and elder brothers.

Cai Huotu, looking to the future, did not want his sons to be competing with each other, so he had each of them specialize in a different field of wood carving. The eldest son focused on decorative window grilles, the second son carved objects related to temples and religion, such as deity sculptures and palanquins, and Cai Rongxing concentrated on household items like rice-cake molds.

Halcyon days

“In the past more than half the pastry makers in Taiwan used my rice-cake molds and other cake molds.” Talking about those halcyon days a half century ago, Cai Rongxing cannot hide his excitement. “To fill orders for ‘Ghost Month’ and Mid-Autumn Festival, I had to get busy six months in advance.” As his reputation spread, Cai picked up clients from all over Taiwan. “We’ve been using many of the molds we have here for more than 20 years,” says the owner of the Jingdan Bakery in Keelung, an old client of Cai’s. In former times, symbolic foods made using cake molds were an essential part of important days and events at every stage of life.

Cai recalls that when he had just gotten married, every day he received countless orders, and he worked night and day to keep up with demand. “At that time, my income for a single day was equal to what an ordinary worker in most trades could make in a month.” Cai once laid out a large sum of money to buy 20 logs of high-quality wood at one time; they were so thick that a grown man couldn’t encircle one with his arms. Cai cut the wood into planks of the thickness he needed for his work, and stacked it against the four walls of his shop to season thoroughly for later use. “You had to pay cash to buy wood.” He had invested all of his hard-earned money, and wouldn’t see any return until such time as the wood was turned into finished products. The worry that came from tying up his capital for such a long time cost him many sleepless nights.

“The good times never last.” Machines began to replace human labor, lowering costs and making it difficult for industries that depended on pure handcrafting to compete. Sometimes Cai’s income for an entire month would be only a few hundred or a few thousand NT dollars. Over his lifetime he has gone through all kinds of ups and downs.

To stabilize his family’s income, Cai thought up a number of new approaches, and accepted whatever orders came in. He came up with the idea of making small decorative keychain fobs that were miniature versions of practical rice-cake molds. Collectors began to eye his exquisitely carved molds featuring auspicious Chinese words and symbols. Amusing woodcarvings with the implied meaning of “you’ll soon have money” became premium souvenirs or gifts. “I’m very grateful to my wife for sticking with me through thick and thin.” To bolster the family finances, Cai’s wife did part-time jobs wherever she could, until they had finally raised their two children to adulthood. “Don’t complain about life, rewards will naturally come.”

Unwilling to wallow in despondency

“I only relocated here in April of this year.” He left behind the shop passed down by his family, and moved into a small, narrow space made by converting the front porch of his home. A wooden sign he made himself, reading “Cai Rongxing Wood Carving Studio,” hangs above the door of his workshop, located in a back street. Although space is limited, on display in the studio are a wide variety of classic carved products, attracting curious gazes from passers-by.

“I don’t know anything about ‘cultural and creative industries.’ I simply feel that I can make a lot of things by carving wood.” A meticulously sculpted miniature “eight-footed bed” (a traditional Chinese bed) was made by Cai to express how much he misses his father: “It took me more than two months to finish.” Perfect small-scale replicas of a pedicab and a rice-noodle vendor’s cart, both with wheels that can turn, are reminders of a time long past. The ancient art of wood carving, which has virtually disappeared, is being kept alive by Cai.

“This is a ‘sugar turtle’ mold, which is very rare these days.” Sugar syrup was poured into the mold and chilled to make the sugar turtles, which were an offering used in Yilan when worshipping the gods, and Cai Rongxing has preserved this traditional mold. “And this handmade soap was cast in a cake mold.” Ingenious new applications enable Yilan’s many traditional crafts to be passed down from generation to generation, offering a ray of hope for their future.

As the market has declined, so has the number of master craftsmen making rice-cake molds. Although orders are few and far between, Cai still insists on working every day. “This is my attitude towards life, and my greatest pleasure in life.”

Sitting at his workbench, wearing presbyopic glasses, Cai toils under the light of a small table lamp, making one gouge at a time as his hands give birth to the vivid forms in his mind. Each cut is invested with emotion.

“It’s hard to make a living in this line of work! These days no young people want to learn it!” Disconsolate at having no-one to pass on his skills to, Cai can only shake his head and sigh. He lifts up his heavy wooden mallet with a practiced hand, its four faces, once smooth and even, now deeply hollowed by continual hammering—just as Cai himself has been shaped by a lifetime of wood carving, which has left behind an ineradicable imprint on him.