Exquisite model ships pay tribute to Macau’s shipbuilding history

Lam Wai Kau is retired, but turns up for “work” nearly every day. Work for the 70-year-old means looking after an exhibit in a small house by the sea on the island of Coloane, China’s Macau Special Administrative Region.

  The building, once home of the Macau Association of Shipyard Workers, now houses dozens of model boats, some less than 20 cm, others nearly a meter long. They are scale replicas of the boats that were once the mainstay of city’s fishing industry. Many were made by Lam himself. There are only a handful of craftsmen left in Macau who are capable of such work.

  Keeping the craft afloat

  “We were all shipyard workers in the old days,” he said. “We don’t want to see our craftsmanship lost to the future generations.”

  “Each model takes months to complete,” Lam told Xinhua. “We first draw blueprints, then make components such as the skeletons and the decks, and finally join them all together.”

  Tam Kam Kwong, president of the association, is nostalgic for the last century when thousands of ships passed through the city wharves. “Back then, shipbuilding was a big deal in Macau. Everyone wanted in,” he said. “To become a shipyard worker meant a three-year apprenticeship and approval from your master.”

  In the 21st century, however, changes to the fishing industry in Macau and its neighbors led to the decline of shipbuilding. In 2006, the last wooden fishing boat was launched in Coloane, and an era ended.

  “That was when we started to make models,” said Tam. “I wanted to teach local people and tourists the history of Macau’s shipbuilding industry and how important it used to be.”

  In 2000, the year after Macau’s return to the motherland, Tam and Lam together made a model named “The Return” and founded the Coloane branch of the association. They have been making models ever since, winning various contests in the mainland as well as abroad. There is, of course, no profit in competitive model shipbuilding.

  Lam and the others pay for everything — wood, rigging and tools — out of their own pockets. Having made no profit out of the models, it’s a major challenge to find anyone with an interest in carrying forward the skills.

  New hands on deck

  Tam Wai Iat, approaching his 50s, is hardly a young man, but comes to the house every Saturday for lessons and has made three models in less than two years. “The more I’m involved, the fonder I grow of it,” Tam said. “I also enjoy talking with the masters about the old shipbuilding days and the anecdotes from those years.”

  Lou Mung Naa, an interior designer born in the 1980s, is another regular visitor to the museum. Her new hobby is very much in tune with her own job — both meticulous about space and structure.

  “It would be a great pity if such craftsmanship were to disappear one day,” she said. “I will be very happy to carry it forward if I’m able to.”