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COMPASS MAGAZINE > November 2012

踢踢踏踏 走出中華風
These clogs, made by Chen
Ren-cheng, are the biggest in
the world (1,380 kilograms).

踢踢踏踏 走出中華風
With the help of machines,
clog-making has become easier
and quicker.

踢踢踏踏 走出中華風
Soles are clamped in order to
polish the surface.

踢踢踏踏 走出中華風
Chen Ren-cheng concentrates
on polishing some clogs.

踢踢踏踏 走出中華風
Spraying lacquer polish onto
the clogs keeps the soles

Walking the traditional Taiwan way: Chen Ren-cheng's clog fashion revolution

Words by Ye Jia-hui
Translated by Angel Pu
Photography by You Jia-huan

"Actually, clogs didn't come from Japan," Chen Ren-cheng explains while holding a pair of 10-centimeter-high clogs. As it turns out, Taiwan has its very own 'clog culture'.

Cheng Ren-cheng, owner of Luzhilian Clogs Painting Studio near the Dongfeng Bikeway, exudes wisdom as he speaks and is a very good communicator. People often find it hard to believe that this 50-year-old man has worked in the clog-production industry for over 30 years. "Actually, I didn't have any interest in it, but my father was in the industry so my brothers and I had to join in to inherit the business," he explains with a laugh. It's not hard to notice that he often narrows his eyes when talking. According to him, this is because when he's making clogs he has to squint to keep out the sawdust. After 30 years, this mannerism has become a habit.

A Chinese tradition honored by the Japanese
As a former Japanese colony, Taiwan has been deeply influenced by Japanese culture and most people think of Japan when they see clogs. However, according to Chen, who has been producing clogs since he was 14 because of his father Chen Jiang-he, this footwear did not originate with the Japanese but, rather, is definitely rooted in Chinese culture.

Chen explains that the history of Chinese clogs can be traced back to as early as the Spring and Autumn Period (approximately 771 B.C.) with clogs also worn during the Han, Tang, and Qing dynasties. In Taiwan, poverty meant that shoes were considered a luxury in earlier times. It wasn't until the Japanese colonial period that people began using footwear, in this case clogs, to show their manners. Although clogs were brought to the island by the Japanese, Taiwanese clogs and Japanese clogs were different in appearance.

Brown wooden clogs: 'High heels' for fish dealers
"The clogs worn by the Taiwanese were known as 'chai-ji' [firewood clogs]," Chen explains. "The soles were made of lighter, durable wooden materials and the strings were made from palm-tree fibers, a combination that defined the original Taiwanese chai-ji." A feature of this type of clog was the 10-centimeter-high heels. Unlike the high heels wore by ladies, chai-ji wearers were mostly dealers in fish markets. Because they spent a long time washing the fish they were going to sell, the high heels meant their feet wouldn't be soaked in water for extended periods. The inner sole, made of palm fiber, had a rough texture when dry but became soft and flexible when wet, illustrating earlier generations' practical everyday wisdom in using natural materials so well.

However, because clog-string makers began dwindling and the appearance and function of "chai-ji" clogs were not favored by the Japanese, they slowly disappeared from Taiwan. The clogs we know today--looking more like flip-flops--are actually a fusion of Japanese and Taiwanese varieties. According to Chen, this type is similar to traditional Japanese clogs in appearance, with some small remaining differences. For example, Japanese men's clogs have squarer shapes, while Taiwanese clogs feature more rounded edges. Moreover, the clogs wore by Taiwanese women at that time were more like slippers. This had nothing to do with fashion; people only had these two choices when it came to clogs.

踢踢踏踏 走出中華風 踢踢踏踏 走出中華風
Left: The shape of traditional Taiwanese clogs is more rounded than Japanese clogs.
Right: This is a creative clog-shaped cell phone stand

Slow, steady work achieves good results
Asked how his father Chen Jiang-he became a clog maker, Chen Ren-cheng says "it was all for a living". The elder Chen was a farm worker who came from a poor family. His income was so low that he was unable to care for his family so, after consulting with his parents, he decided to give up his farming job and learn how to make clogs from one of his relatives.
As an apprentice, Chen's father had to care for his master's daily needs, such as making the bed and cooking, in addition to learning his trade. Those three and a half years were rough but for Chen it was worthwhile to make good living for his family.

After finishing his apprenticeship, Chen was then ready to run his own business and decided to open a clog factory in Puli with his friends. Unfortunately, there was a flood that year and all the materials they bought were wasted, not to mention all of the money he had spent on the factory. Against his will, Chen had no other choice but to give up the factory and become an employee in his uncle's wood-material shop. After few years of this, he still wanted to have his own career, so he went back to his hometown Shenggang and opened a clog factory with money he had saved for years.

In those days, clog production hadn't become mechanized and Chen Jiang-he only used a planer tool for his clogs. When planing the wood, it was important to notice the curve of the soles and do it in one go so there would be a smooth edge and line--something that remains true today.

Sitting at the inclined working desk, Chen Ren-cheng positions the wood at the lower side and sits by the higher end. He uses his toes to steady the wood and begins using the planer knife to shape the sole. This seemingly easy work, surprisingly, makes him sweat profusely after few minutes. "This is really not a easy job, physically and mentally speaking," he says, wiping the sweat off his face. When this writer decided to give it a try, it wasn't surprising that it was impossible to evenly plane a complete piece of wood, even after finally learning how to hold the planer knife and steady the clog. "Use all your weight to push and use your wrist to control the curve; don't forget to steady the wood with your toes," said Chen, trying to provide instruction. "It's interesting that clog makers don't even wear shoes when they are working."

Fashion innovations keep up with the times
When the clog industry became mechanized, the Chens didn't feel left behind. Instead, they tried to keep up with the times. Because logging is illegal in Taiwan, today's clogs are all made of pine imported from New Zealand. According to Chen Ren-cheng, the light texture of pinewood makes it a perfect material for clogs because, if they are too heavy, wearers might be injured. And clogs made of pine usually don't weigh over 75 grams apiece. Moreover, because modern-day flooring is mostly ceramic tiles, Chen improved traditional clogs by adding slip-resistant soles that also dampen loud sounds when one is walking.

Although the modern shoe industry introduces new styles and materials every season, clogs have never disappeared from people's life. The reason, according to Chen Ren-cheng, is that besides being comfortable to wear and durable, they also exude a unique, retro style that no other footwear can compare to. In order to promote this traditional craftsmanship to the younger generation, he not only makes the clog styles more youthful and elaborate, but also has invented ergonomic clogs and functional clogs that ease lower back pain. There are also clog-related products, such as cell phone chains, key chains and cell phone stands, in his studio, where visitors are allowed to observe production and paint clogs themselves. Chen hopes that by doing this more people will understand the history and the beauty of clogs and make them a daily-life accessory.

Lu Zhi Lian Clog Painting Studio
Tel:(04) 2512-0536、0936-268-955
Address:196-1, PoZi St., Fengyuan Dist, Taichung City (next to the starting point of Dongfeng Bikeway)
Hours:Saturdays/Sundays/holidays 9:30-18:30; open weekdays by appointment only.

踢踢踏踏 走出中華風 踢踢踏踏 走出中華風
Left: Modern clogs are mostly made of imported pinewood.
Right: In the old days, makers used special planing knives to produce clogs.

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