The humble gourd as a medium of artwork

Zhang Jingru
Huang A'jin, 70, is tracing, carving, dyeing and drying the gourd, which is called hulu and symbolizes happiness and good luck in Chinese culture.
Zhang Jingru

Ornamental gourds — cousins of pumpkins, cucumbers and melons — have a long history in Chinese craft art. Huang A’jin, 70, is keeping that tradition alive.

He has been selling his artistic gourds for eight years from a stall in downtown Shanghai’s Jing’an Park. On rainy days, he stays in his workshop on Wuzhou Road in Hongkou District.

His skill is tracing, carving, dyeing and drying the vegetable, which is called hulu and symbolizes happiness and good luck in Chinese culture. He has been recognized as a “street artist” by the Shanghai Performance Trade Association.

Huang is a bit of a modern-day promoter, inviting people to text him on his WeChat or QQ account if they want to know anything about gourds or even buy one.

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Huang A'jin chats with a foreign customer. He often invites people to text him on WeChat or QQ if they want to know anything about gourds or even buy one.

He buys most of his gourds from Liaocheng, a city in Shandong Province with ideal growing conditions for the vegetable. The gourds need to be exposed to the sun for at least three months after harvest, before they are ready for artwork.

“They need to be tough but malleable,” Huang says. “Just like we humans should be.”

Huang matches the shapes of the gourds with drawings he has made. He pencils the patterns onto the surface. The gourds may be monochromatic or multicolored, depending on whether dyes are used. The final procedure is to wash out excess color and let them dry.

Before retirement, Huang worked at the former Shanghai Port Bureau (now Shanghai International Port Group). When he first took up gourd art, he had some problems to overcome.

“Many of the gourds were eaten by worms,” he says. “But later, I took advantage of that and hollowed out patterns like flowers and animals.”

For a half-meter hollowed-out gourd, the artwork can take up to three months to complete. For gourds not hollowed out, the process may take as little as an hour.

“These fine gourds carry messages,” Huang says while carving the last petal of a rose on a gourd. “This one is for a boy to send to his girlfriend.”

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Huang works on a gourd.

Huang began gourd carving when he was 60, helped by his talent for drawing. “I wanted to do something challenging and special,” he says.

At first, it was just a retirement hobby, but later his son and friends suggested he try selling them.

In 2011, he did just that. He turned up every morning at a crossroad near the City God Temple at Yuyuan Garden and opened a suitcase filled with gourds and tools for different procedures.

Nowadays, he prices his gourds according to size and design. The 6-centimeter size is the most popular and sells for about 200 yuan (US$31.42). He frequently tailors designs to customer requests.

His customers vary in age. Young children love cartoons like Mikey Mouse. The elderly prefer patterns like the peach, which symbolizes long life.

The most common designs involve lines of poetry or Chinese idioms.

“My favorite is tian dao chou qin (god rewards the diligent),” he says. “Many young customers also love it.”

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The most common designs on Huang's gourd artworks are lines of poetry or Chinese idioms.

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A gourd is carved with Huang's self-portrait.

Some of his customers affectionately call him “Grandpa Hulu” after a cartoon character in the popular Chinese animation series “Calabash Brothers.” In the show, Grandpa Hulu has white hair and white eyebrows. So does Huang.

“We like him,” says Wu Ai’tong, who bought a gourd carved with her favorite saying: yong wang zhi qian (keep going and be fearless). “His gourds are inspiring.”

Huang’s craft works also attract foreign customers. Sena Demir, a Turkish woman living in downtown Shanghai, says she has kept in touch with Huang since buying one of his gourds. They speak in simple English, which Huang picked up during his years at the port bureau.

Last winter, he signed up for an online course to improve his English.

Wang Fangyan, who used to sell coral necklaces in a stall next to Huang, says he was always helpful and minded her stand if she had to leave temporarily. She says she is surprised how quickly he has learned to use digital modes like WeChat and Alipay in his little business.

Huang says he has to keep pace with what customers want. His son taught him how to create WeChat’s Moments online. His digital footprint brings sales and new acquaintances.

Chen Dagang, president of the Tianjin Gourd Art Association, began exchanging ideas and working with Huang after he discovered him on WeChat.

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Huang, holding one of his best gourd artworks, poses with foreign customers.

In 2014, Chen invited Huang to the Tianjin Gourd Culture Festival, where one of Huang’s works won the first prize.

Huang is eager to explain the culture of his art to young people. Earlier this year, he gave a talk at the Songjiang No. 4 Middle School. He brought along a gourd decorated with the schools’ motto: shang mei qiu zhen, ming de wen xue, which means “pursue beauty and truthfulness through self-improvement.”

He told the students that gourd art originated more than 7,000 years ago in China. He also demonstrated some of the skills of gourd-carving.

As a mentor, Huang has 20 apprentices. One of them, Zhou Hongyan, is a major in fashion design. After seeing Huang’s artworks in 2012, she set out to apply his design procedures to clothing.

“I teach him English, and he teaches me carving skills,” she says. “He is always confident and diligent.”

Huang’s philosophy on life is straightforward.

“The world is changing, and we have to adapt for a better future,” he says. “If we meld popular trends with traditional art and culture, our heritage will be preserved and strengthened.”

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