“To me, mahjong carving is an art form. It is also my work, but it gives me great pleasure when I receive compliments from customers or when they return to purchase another set because it shows their appreciation for my technique, precision, and craft.”
Cheung Shun King
Owner of Biu Kee Mahjong
Our Urban Explorer
Could you please introduce yourself to our guests?
My name is Cheung Shun-king, and I am the owner of Biu Kee Mahjong, which was named after my father. Our company has created hand-carved mahjong tiles for over half a century across three generations – my grandfather, my father, and now, me.
Can you tell us a bit about your background? Did you grow up in Hong Kong?
I am not from Hong Kong, but I moved here at a very young age with my family when I was just two years old, so this place is home to me.
You specialize in hand-carved mahjong. Can you tell us what your fascination is with this craft?
I started visiting the mahjong shop when I was just a few years old, so I was exposed to mahjong carving at a very young age. I started carving mahjong tiles at the age of 5, just by observing my father every day. Biu Kee Mahjong was my grandfather’s company, which was then inherited by my father.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
To me, mahjong carving is an art form. It is also my work, but it gives me great pleasure when I receive compliments from customers or when they return again to purchase another set because it shows their appreciation for my technique, precision, and craft.
What does a day in the life of Mr. Cheung Shun-king look like?
I start my work early in the morning at the shop. When it is not too busy, I focus on carving mahjong tiles. But when customers come in, I immediately drop everything I am doing so I can assist them as best as I can and help them find what they are looking for. But generally, I find that I get most of my work done in the evenings when I can dedicate my full attention to carving.
Leaving A Legacy
How do you think the industry has changed from when you first started in the mahjong production business till now?
To be honest, the shoppers back then were much more sophisticated in taste, and they were willing to pay more for quality goods. Nowadays, people prefer cheaper mahjong sets even if it is of low quality, so business for shops like us has not been easy. Also, consumers today prefer efficiency and ease of shopping, so one of the reasons they come to our store is because of how easily they can find it. Moving out of this location will certainly hinder our business. Back then, shoppers were much more loyal and honored the relationship we have.
What is your motivation for continuing in this dying trade with mass-produced mahjong sets taking over?
Although a majority of mahjong sets are now mass-produced by machines, I still believe that there are some people who still honour the tradition and craftsmanship of hand-carved tiles and are willing to pay more for them.
Can you break down the simple steps of how you create a set of mahjong tiles?
Traditional hand-carved mahjong production can be divided into different steps. First, I cut up the raw materials into mahjong pieces. Once that is complete, I polish the corners of each tile. Then, I begin the process of hand carving each tile. For the final step, I add the coloring (sweeping), and oil (scraping), and then let it dry.
You may be an expert when it comes to carving mahjong tiles, but do you play it as well?
I actually do not know how to play mahjong! Sadly, I do not have the time since I am always working at the shop, even when there is a typhoon. I only take one day off a week, so I prefer not to look at mahjong tiles when I do not need to.
Where was your last travel destination?
I actually do not travel much out of Hong Kong! I have only been to Cheung Chau Island when I was a student in school. I have travelled only once to Thailand on a tour and once to Kuala Lumpur on my honeymoon with my wife.
Where would you like to explore next?
I have dedicated so much of my time to work that I have not had many opportunities to travel. I only take 1 day off a year and that is during Chinese New Year to go to the temple with my family to give thanks to the Gods!
How would you describe Hong Kong?
Full of opportunities and connections.