Master carpenter keeps old buildings alive
January 04, 2019
The excellent preservation of one of Shanghai’s largest groups of historical houses is credited principally to Ma Jiale, a master carpenter who has been working on the old buildings for nearly 40 years.
Ma, 58, works for Chuanbei Property Management Company in the conservation area around Shanyin Road in Hongkou District. He has a reputation of almost mythic proportions.
He can fix broken window frames or creaking floorboards while restoring them to their original look. But Ma is scheduled to retire in two years and is yet to find an apprentice.
Starting work at 18 years old, Ma knows the windows, gates, floors or stairs of every building in the zone, nearly half of which are listed and protected.
Two old-school wooden mailboxes in the neighborhood allow residents, especially the large number of senior residents who can’t walk to Ma’s workshop and aren’t so nifty with a smartphone, to submit requests for repairs.
Whatever needs to be done, Ma ruminates on a solution, collects his tools and materials and trundles to the site on his old bicycle.
His efficient and warm-hearted manner has won him the affectionate title of “Master Ma” from most of the residents.
“I’ve been repairing houses around these parts for decades, so I know most of the residents as well as I know the buildings,” Ma said.
“My greatest sense of achievement comes when I see the buildings standing in their rows, restored to their original beauty,” he added.
Ma was given an award for his excellent property management by the Trade Association of Shanghai Property Management in 2017 and his team has just won the same title again in 2018.
Shanyin Road is considered a kind of open-air museum of the city’s old residences.
The first road built in Hongkou in 1911 (formerly known as Scott Road) features houses and villas in the English, Japanese and shikumen styles.
The street was once home to literati and revolutionaries, including writers Lu Xun (1881-1936) and Mao Dun (1896-1931). It also housed Qu Qiubai (1899-1935), leader of the Communist Party of China in the late 1920s, and Zeng Liansong (1917-1999), designer of the national flag.
Ma has developed his own techniques and describes repairing old buildings as being just like “restoring antiques.”
Repairing a collapsed wooden floor, he carefully removed the floor boards and replaced the decayed joists beneath. He then polished the original boards and put them back in place on top of the new beams.
“It feels like exactly the same when I step on the floor,” said Yu Jianping, who lives on the second floor of the building and reported the problem to Ma.
Ma even has his own recipes for adhesives and concrete which simulate the original materials used nearly a century ago.
An increasing number of foreigners comes to visit the area, so it is essential to keep the structures in the original style, he said.
“An overseas visitor might be a descendant of the former residents of one of these garden villas,” he added.
Ma keeps a notebook in a closet at his studio where he records every key repair and files the notes left by residents. He is eager to find someone to inherit the book along with his skills.
“I used to be able to dismantle a heavy wooden gate alone, but now I can’t bear the weight,” Ma said.
“Few young people are willing to learn a skill that generates such a low income,” Ma said. “All my skills and experience are about to be lost and I’m worried about the future of the buildings.”
Residents are also lamenting his retirement. “Master Ma always solves our problems quickly and we will miss his sunny demeanor,” said Yu.
The city government has plans to protect about 90 percent of the remaining downtown lane neighborhoods.
About 7.3 million square meters of residential space 50 years or older will be preserved, which requires a large group of master craftsmen.
However, there are very few professionals like Ma with both excellent skills and knowledge of the buildings.
Chang Qing, an architecture professor with Tongji University, has proposed training sessions on maintenance of historical buildings at the university, not only to protect the structures but to preserve traditional skills.
Nowadays, Ma spends every spare minute teaching some basic carpentry skills to younger team members, but none of them is a professional carpenter. They are all masons or electricians. His former apprentice quit several years ago due to low pay.
“If it is necessary, I’m willing to keep working after retirement,” Ma said. “My biggest hope is that these buildings are still beautiful in 50 years or even a century from now.”