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Kampung Pictures Tale in Ten Iron forged
Iron forged PDF Print E-mail
Written by straits-mongrel   
Saturday, 26 December 2009 13:40

Forge partners: Hammers resting on the iron anvil at Wong's workshop. Picture / Nandakumar Haridas

I remember his clean nails when we first shook hands that afternoon. It was firm, not vise-like, nor do I recall being gripped by calluses. He spoke in tones which never rose above the decibel of the mellow traffic outside. All this in a man who worked over 45 years in the drama of fusing the elements – fire, metal, wood, water, earth.

Wong Fook Woon is a blacksmith. One of the few left around the country who actually still do it all by hand. In fact, the 60-year-old is said to be the only one left in the deep central region of the country. He makes knives and parangs, those kukri-shaped machetes that helped clear the land for agriculture.



Ripe: Yellow-orange is the optimum temperature when working on the heftier aspects of forging steel. Here Madam Lai pounds the sledgehammer over the hilt end of a parang.

Wong works in Batu Kikir, about 20 minutes east of Kuala Pilah, Negri Sembilan. His three children, now adults, have all gone on “with an education” and he's proud about that prospect. Today, it is him and his wife, Lai Wai Han, who keep the workplace going. He's at peace that someday, before too long, his practice too will follow the way of the other blacksmiths in the country.

It's not a job anybody can do,” says Wong in Cantonese. “In the past, I've had young, able-bodied assistants to help in the workplace. The strain was too much. Some had nosebleeds because of the heat.”

Heat comes from burning charcoal; reaching temperatures over 1,000 deg C, it is traditionally the best source of heat for blacksmithing. The fire is housed in a cement-rendered brick forge (sometimes referred to as a hearth) with a consistent stream of air driven by an electric centrifugal blower. This is a more recent convenience. Years ago, an assistant would drive air with leather bellows.


Husband and wife team: Madam Lai started helping out Wong at the shop after he suffered from a minor heart attack a few years ago. "I try to make sure he doesn't over-exert himself. Plus the children have all grown."


Within arm's reach are tongs, pliers, chisels, punches, and pokers. A half-body turn away sits the anvil, clamped and bolted onto a tree trunk as base. An assortment of hammers stand ready nearby.

There is a pragmatic beauty about the whole set up; the sort of feeling you get when you visit a veteran mechanic who's serious about his trade.

All this was driven into me by my father,” Wong recalls, smiling. “He would pull my ears hard when I took the easy way out. I didn't see why we couldn't take short cuts, why must tools be kept in their place, why must there always be that much ready stock of charcoal. I do now.

You want to forge something right, there are no short cuts.”


Tender strokes: Blacksmithing is a dance of many types of beatings. At times softer hits are required during the finer shaping of the blade. This is done when the metal is red hot in order it doesn't get deformed too easily.


Wong was 13 when he started as an apprentice in his father's shop. Wong's father who arrived from China as a youth, learned the trade in the home-town itself. It was a niche to be filled. The Jempol district was fast developing as a rubber hub with Bahau as its centre. There was a huge demand for tapping knives to draw sap from the trees and machetes to keep the belukar from reclaiming cleared land.

That's where blacksmiths came in. Out of iron and steel, they made stuff; stuff that made other things happen. Anything ferrous – pots and pans, changkul, ladles, scissors, buckles – they made them. Historically, blacksmiths were a prized group of craftsmen who emerged from the Iron Age, specialising in shaping of the metal by beating, chiselling and punching it. (The root word for 'smith' is 'smite' which means 'to hit'. Black referred to the colour of iron, known then as black copper.)

It is through the work of blacksmiths that we have the word 'forge'. I like that word; use it all the time. But it is only until one witnesses how metal is forged that a deeper appreciation emerges. Forge demands hard work. Forge submits a material through its limits, stresses it, coddles it and finally makes it useful.



Mark of Wong: Apart from the size of the machete (No 3), a logo bearing the blacksmith's seal is punched into the blade. Picture shows the blade ready to be inserted into its wooden handle. It is then ground and sharpened.


For his knives, Wong prefers the steel stock used in the leaf spring suspension of heavy vehicles. These strips are cut to their predetermined sizes. In all, there are four standard sizes (coded 1 through 4 with size 1 the longest).

It's true you need good arms for this kind of work. But equally so, good eyes. A blacksmith studies the colour of glowing steel to know the correct time to work each process. When heated, steel starts glowing from red to orange, then yellow and finally white before melting. Yellow-orange is the ideal state for most forging, although finer shaping is best done when it's red.


Fitting the handle: The hilt is heated till red hot and forced into a pilot hole in the wooden handle. The heat burns away the wood fibres, spewing out smoke. Picture / Nandakumar Haridas


An experienced blacksmith runs through the routine of heating, beating, and reheating working fastidiously from the hilt, which receives the handle, right up to the point. Wong takes about a half hour to forge the blade of a utility parang, starting from standard steel stock. In his prime he could make about a dozen a day.

The body itself takes a beating while the steel is hammered and shaped. Four decades and millions of pounding on the anvil, the shocks absorbed in the Wong's wrists and elbows have started to announce their wear and tear.

“During the high production periods, my joints would ache. And holding a glass of water would feel quite weightless after a day pounding with the hammer.”

But it was minor heart attack a few years ago which would slow him down. “I don't make many parangs these days. Only on special orders from old friends.”



Fine shaping: At another part of the workplace is a wall of files, drills and smaller knives. Here the knife is held down by a vise clamp and the handle filed and sanded until it reaches its final finish. A finish lacquer is oftentimes applied to protect the wood.

These days, the bulk of Wong's work revolves around the maintenance and reconditioning of rubber tapping knives. In an area surrounded by Felda plantation schemes, this has kept him suitably occupied. His customers come from as far away as the neighbouring state of Pahang.

Most rubber-tapping knives have a sharp bend at their tips. This ensures a consistent optimum depth when the blade cuts into the trees; too deep and it hurts the tree, too shallow and you don't draw enough sap. Wong repairs knives whose bent edges have broken off. This involves forging a new bend from the existing blade shaft and resharpening.


Grinding: Not everything is traditional. Wong uses an angle grinder to sharpen rubber-tapping knives. "The whetstone days were just too laborious." Picture / Nandakumar Haridas



New lease of life: A rubber-tapping knife gets a renewed cutting head. Because of the thinness of the section which makes it susceptible to breaking, a process called 'quenching' is employed. Here, the deep red hot knife is immersed in a tub of oil. The process results in it becoming slightly more springy and able to bend without breaking easily.


Working on utility tools keep the days busy and helped support the family. But in the marrow of every artisan is an artist. On quieter days, amidst the cooing of his merboks, Wong would work on his pet projects – ceremonial swords of his own design, where the steel is more intricately forged and the handle carved from buffalo horn with a brass collar. The sheath would typically be leather.

Perhaps one a year. I don't have to rush these. I get to explore with the weight, balance, the correct lustre. I get to employ more tender beatings for the ornamentation, which are fewer when forging utility tools. It involves a larger repertoire of skills overall – different heat states, different turns of the wrists, different strokes.



Dragon head: Detail of Wong's prouder work, showing the buffalo horn handle shaped into the image of a dragon.

Keeps my mind sharp,” says Wong, as he holds a favourite blade with a handle of a dragon.

His nails are dusted with iron ore by now, his skin moist from perspiration. By nightfall, when he sits by his dining table with his wife and maybe a friend or two, he would already be scrubbed clean again. His speech would be mild, his manner gentle - a persona that belies the stereotypical image of a burly, gruff man. And perhaps that's what forge is.

It's about coming out tempered.



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Only registered users can write comments!
Anonymous |2010-01-05 14:57:55
thanks for sharing these photographs along with the narratives.
friedice |2010-01-11 18:57:48
Interesting and informative article. Thanks for sharing this.
Raoul |2010-01-19 23:25:15
A great opening paragraph, symbolism infused with deeper meaning...

keep these A grade articles coming... always an enjoyable read..

The photographs too are a treaure! :-)
The one where sparks fly is stunning!
Anonymous |2010-01-24 11:28:34
Syabas to Mr. Wong Fook Woon and Madam Lai Wai Han! It is hardworking people like you who makes me proud to be Malaysian. Honest and humble living, unlike others who crave for titles and assume they are "WalkingTall" as Malaysians merely by having a datukship and the likes. I salute both of you who represent several thousand families of all ethnicities who work hard and are unassuming... Pure hard work and sweat make you special people to your family and whom all Malaysians can be proud to relate to and associate with.
Jasmine Ng  - Being forged |2010-01-25 06:38:27
Thank you for this.
You are absolutely correct -
The "blacksmith" of our souls are forging each of us for the future of this nation. Each of us (like steel) need to be stressed & coddled before we can be useful. And collectively, when all of us realise our true potential and rise to it, our nation will raise to its true potential too

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