What you need to know
In this Miaoli County woodcarving mecca, there’s a consistent demand for sculptures made from the wood of endangered trees. Government crackdowns on poachers have only fueled the market.
Willy Lee (李柏葳), like most residents of Miaoli County’s Sanyi (三義) township in northwest Taiwan, has been involved in the woodcarving industry for much of his life. Known throughout Taiwan as the “Kingdom of Woodcarving,” Sanyi is home to around 300 wood art shops which line the tourist-friendly Guangsheng Old Street and Shuimei Street, and feed a hungry market for domestically produced wood art.
Lee’s father, a Sanyi native and skilled artisan, responded to the heightened demand and opened a shop in 1996. However, he refused to sell sculptures, furniture, and art made from Taiwanese wood – highly coveted by buyers, but obtained via the illegal logging of endangered trees in old growth forests like the Taiwan yellow cypress (黃檜) and incense cedar (肖楠).
“My father told me that if you get dirty, you get dirty all your life,” said Lee. “He wouldn’t touch [domestic wood]. Not even once.”
Lee’s father, who asked not to be named, joined many others in working only with legal imported wood after the Forestry Bureau instituted a nationwide logging ban in 1991. However, domestic wood products – such as essential oils drawn from felled trees, elaborate life-sized sculptures, and irregular pieces of wood known as burl coveted for their unique, intricate patterns – are still openly sold in Sanyi to a robust market of Taiwanese and Chinese buyers. Shopkeepers worry little about police interference, openly advertising cypress wood from the forests of Alishan and Nantou County.
To stop illegal logging, the government has mostly aimed for the source, targeting poachers – colloquially referred to as 山老鼠, or “mountain rats.” Many of those hired to poach trees are runaway migrant workers, who leave their jobs to join gang-affiliated groups operating in central Taiwan’s remote old growth forests. The eldest and most prolific of Taiwan’s trees are also its most coveted.
In recent years, prominent Sanyi shop owners have received lengthy prison sentences (18 months and five years, respectively) after being caught buying illegal wood from poachers. However, they are still the exception. Shopkeepers are generally left alone, as it’s harder to definitively determine the source of wood that is carved, finished, and made into a saleable product.
Most sellers in Sanyi demur when asked how they acquire their products. “We have professionals who find the wood for us,” said one Shuimei Street shopkeeper when asked about a piece of red cypress (紅檜) burl she was selling for NT$200,000 (US$6,836).
However, the owner of a Guangsheng Street shop told The News Lens that she had obtained her wood from poachers. She gestured to a yellow cypress wooden apple (檜木蘋果), an aromatic decoration said to bring good luck. “I bought that wood from mountain rats,” she said, explaining that there is no way for the police to determine the origin of a piece once it is finished.
The shop owner, an energetic middle-aged woman in a thick down jacket, said that crackdowns by authorities made further transactions with poachers risky. She said her business was suffering as a result. “I don't buy wood from mountain rats anymore,” she said. “I used to. Now, I'm afraid.”
Despite this, she said she had no qualms about openly selling her existing wood art. “[Selling] the finished product,” she emphasized, “is not a problem.”
Sanyi has built its tourist appeal on its mudiao (木雕) woodcarving tradition. At its peak in the 1970s, 70 percent of the population was employed in the wood industry. Woodcarving is no longer Sanyi’s economic engine – the town is now home to the automaker Luxgen – but mudiao still defines its identity. The Miaoli County tourism bureau has dedicated itself to developing Sanyi as a destination for international tourism. But the practice of mudiao artisanship and forest conservation efforts are an awkward marriage.
Taiwan yellow cypress, often called Hinoki (its Japanese name), was first logged when Japan occupied the island between 1912 and 1945. Once the Kuomintang came to power, its Forestry Bureau operated as a for-profit state industry which exported cypress to Japan, decimating Taiwan’s primeval forests. In response to growing fears that old-growth trees would be lost forever, the logging of centennial trees was banned in 1990, and ban on logging in all natural forests was instituted in 1991.
However, this has not quenched the desire for the wood of Taiwan’s cypresses. The yellow and red cypress account for two of the world’s only six surviving species of chamaecyparis (a child of the cypress family). The slow-growing, long-living coniferous trees can grow up to 60 m tall and have lived up to 3,000 years. But the oldest, most distinctive, and most majestic are also the primary targets of poachers.
Yellow cypress remains coveted for its strong, sturdy wood, the distinct appearance of its wood grain, and its rich aroma. The wood has been used for temple building in Japan and Taiwan for centuries. Enthusiastic tourists, mostly from Taiwan and China, come to Sanyi to buy yellow cypress, as well as red cypress, incense cedar, and camphor (樟腦). The population of cypress and cedar trees in Taiwan has dwindled to the point where the International Union for Conservation of Nature has declared them threatened.
After the logging ban, poachers began to get creative. Some found a loophole: Trees that were felled by typhoons were considered legal for sale. Loggers would find a tree along the Da’an River (大安溪), which runs from Miaoli’s Shei-Pa National Park and passes just south of Sanyi. They would slowly hack at its trunk to weaken it, and wait for a storm to knock it over into the river, which would carry it down the mountains. Some even attached GPS devices to the trunks of trees, then went to the banks of the river to retrieve them. This practice was eventually stamped out by local authorities.
The holy grail of the illegal wood trade, however, is the burl. Unlike other wood products in the market, the distinctive serpentine patterns of these tumorous offshoots of tree trunks make it impossible to create forgeries. “Collectors want them as they are unique,” said Lee. “They go crazy over the burl.” He said that buyers will ask traders to go into the forest and find them a burl. A tree’s burl can be cleanly sawed off its trunk and carried out of the forest by a single logger, making the practice of obtaining the burls of endangered trees hard to prevent.
If the sale of products obtained via illegal logging continues to be largely unrestricted, Sanyi will remain a destination for buyers interested in wood which is otherwise largely unobtainable. (Internet sales of illegal wood are quickly shut down by authorities.) Because the government is targeting poachers, the price of domestic wood in shops is rising. For shopkeepers and artists, working with illegal wood is a lucrative proposition.
One young Sanyi artist said that he works with any wood clients give him, but he would rather not know its source. “I don’t ask,” he said, “and they don’t tell.” He and the other artists at his studio harbor no illusions about their work. “We know when the wood comes from mountain rats,” he added.
The artist knows the government is cracking down on illegal poaching, and he said he is scared nowadays. But for him, the financial benefits are worth the risks.
This wasn’t the case for Lee’s father. Buyers were not interested in his work with imported wood, and after 20 years in business, he closed his shop last year. He now focuses on painting and fiberglass sculptures. “My father,” said Lee, “doesn’t want to be involved with woodcarving anymore.”
Editor: David Green