In his younger days, carpenter Wang Chia-na left his rural Hualien community and went off to win international competitions for his craft. However, his story is an uncommon one in a place where most young people struggle, being raised in families with absent parents and other domestic issues. Wanting to give back to his native Yuli Township and shape the futures of young people there, Wang returned home and opened a small workshop. The workshop has been a great success, and now Wang has his sights set on something larger: a factory where more than 20 young people can find stable employment. Let’s hear from the mentor himself and some of the young people whose lives he’s touched. Our Sunday special report.
I can see my old self in him. So that made me think about how to help these kids.
Not wanting to see the children of his hometown have the same childhood he had, Wang Chia-na felt determined to rein them in.
There is bound to be bitterness, but Wang has struggled ahead of us, so what right do we have to be bitter over here.
Passing through the lush green East Rift Valley is Taiwan’s longest county road. Flanked on both sides by trees, and passing through fields and settlements in southern Hualien, County Road 193 has been named “Heaven’s Road.” Nestled away along this road, in Hualien’s Yuli Township, is a small workshop where a group of carpenters have found their own slice of heaven.
For these three men in their early 20s, this workshop truly is heaven. Holding different parts of furniture they’re building, they focus intently on the work at hand, bringing their project to life.
The three young men and their instructor gather around blueprints drawn on craft paper, and discuss their next steps.
The blueprints were designed by Wang, who is an instructor to these three young apprentices. Wang’s work in carpentry has earned him top awards in international competitions. When he was younger, Wang seized every opportunity to join competitions both at home and abroad.
As we gain more experience, the things we design will be more practical.
Wang has had an interest in carpentry since he was a child, but came from a low-income family. Later on he put his skills to the test building a wooden home out of scrap materials. Today he is taking on a new challenge, fostering a passion for carpentry among local youth.
When I finished my studies I came back to Yuli. I went to teach at a local school and encountered the kids of my hometown. I looked at them and saw myself, their lack of resources, their family environment and their absent parents – some of whom will never come back. I looked at them and thought, “What can I do about these kids?”
My mother passed away when I was in fifth grade. My father still lives elsewhere for work. When I first came home from high school, I found myself taking care of two old people by myself. I took care of my grandfather and grandmother. Taking care of them on my own, I felt that my life was quite difficult.
Talking about his past, Liu smiles at first, but when he brings up his grandmother’s dementia, he hardly hold back the tears.
What was hardest for me was seeing her interactions with her husband, my grandfather. She wouldn’t call him by his name, she would call him by my father’s name. I would just sit in the corner and look at this married couple. I could see that it was heart wrenching for my grandfather. It was actually very difficult for him, but he wouldn’t express it. I was watching from the side and wondering how I would react if that were me being called by a different name.
Liu said that at times he too would go unrecognized by his grandmother. Recounting the past, Liu said he felt that the root of his grandmother’s problem was a sense of longing.
Heading out is no longer as it used to be for Liu, when he would be gone from long periods at a time. The workshop was founded in 2021, and after finishing high school, Liu was able to start work there full time. Finally, he could find balance between taking care of his grandmother and working.
Between laughs and casual conversation, Wang asks the young carpenters about life at home. To these young men, Wang is not just a mentor, he plays a variety of important roles in their lives.
Sometimes he has this stern look on his face, but when he smiles, he looks just like a father.
He should be Santa Claus. He’s willing to spend his time and his money on kids that aren’t his own, kids that he has no blood relation to.
Wang’s close relationship with the young carpenters stems from his return to Yuli in 1996, when he began writing annual business plans and applying for subsidies to buy equipment. After 12 years, he finally established a carpentry class at Yudong Junior High School, where he was teaching. He hoped that, through the class, he could inspire young children who lacked interest in studying, to find personal worth through learning carpentry skills. However, after 25 years of efforts to develop a carpentry program at the school, Wang was still challenged by lack of funding for the endeavor.
At first I thought I could handle the funding by myself. I was very naive, so I tried to handle it myself. However, not long after I realized, this isn’t something a teacher can handle on their own. However, I couldn’t go in there and explain the situation to the students. I thought they would never forgive me, that they would think I’m a liar, but in the end I knew I couldn’t carry on.
The idea of being seen as a liar by the children was the hardest thing Wang could imagine going through. Fortunately, in 2018 the Forestry Bureau began a partnership with Wang, providing resources for the carpentry class. The partnership allowed the bureau to promote domestic timber, and in return it provided the class with funding, which in turn also meant support for training industry talent. This gave birth to the workshop, allowing local kids to chase their dreams while staying in their hometown.
Warm lighting fills the room. This is the Huashan 1914 Creative Park in Taipei, and Wang is here with some student carpenters to hold an exhibition showcasing handmade furniture.
This arc, and this part here, and many other parts of the furniture can’t be done with a machine. You have to do them entirely by hand.
Realizing they can’t rely on donations and government subsidies forever, the young carpenters decided to step out of Hualien and show their works to a larger audience. Only in this way can they have a chance at securing more orders, and prop up their hometown’s industry.
As the young carpenters work hard marketing their products, they surprise long-term customers with improvements in their craft.
Member of the public
Compared with what they showed off at student exhibitions, their work now is more refined.
Member of the public
The quality is very good. Their lines are all very graceful.
Such feedback is a great boost of confidence for these carpenters. Their works also bring them financial stability – something they didn’t have before joining the workshop. One of the forces behind making the exhibition in Taipei possible, is a flight attendant whose colleagues donated to the workshop.
I was reading a magazine about Hualien when I came across a report about Mr. Wang. I was so impressed that this award-winning professional returned to his rural hometown to share his time with the children there. I contacted Wang and he told me that he wanted to bring the kids to Taipei. After my colleagues got word of it, some donated funds, and one donated a brand-name handbag that I sold to put toward the cause. With these resources, these funds, we were able to bring the kids here and hold the exhibition.
Through the support of so many kind-hearted people the carpentry class was able to live on. Mr. Wang has already been retired from the school for 10 years now, but he has never stopped working with local kids at the workshop, always hoping to encourage them to take hold of their futures.
Ten years, 20 years goes by before you know it. There are kids who are fated to leave their hometowns and they will still leave. I feel like after my 25 years working at the school, I still don’t have the ability to encourage a kid to return to their hometown to work there. In the end, I feel that if the industry isn’t there, there’s no way to change these children’s fate.
The three young men are all now full-time employees of the workshop, and Wang continues to work with other kids from the school.
There’s some income from my work here, and that income helps my family. I don’t need to ask my parents for money for tuition, I can pay it myself.
To help more kids like Chian Sheng-en, Wang is now working on a larger project that aims to foster the development of Hualien’s carpentry industry.
We’re headed to Yongfeng Village. It’s in Fuli Township, which is further in the mountains. In the future, there will be a factory there.
Feeling that the workshop is limited in its capacity to help local kids, Wang sets his sights on something bigger. He hopes to build a large factory in Fuli Township, in the southernmost part of Hualien County.
We plan to build a factory roughly 150 ping in size. Compared with our current workshop, that will be roughly three-times larger. With the factory we estimate that we could hire 20 or so people. Each of those people represents a family. With stable employment, each of those families will have more normal home environments, and be safer. In the future, that could turn into even more work opportunities here.
Currently, the site of the future factory is still an empty lot covered in thick overgrowth. However, every movement must start from somewhere, and Wang hopes that his dream can result in bright futures for more kids and more families in Hualien.