What must it have been like to have lived elsewhere in a different time? People from long ago used to build their own houses and make their own furniture. If you didn’t make it yourself, you would find yourself a carpenter. But in today’s world of assembly lines, mass-produced goods, and living in modern cities – especially in a very big and populous Chinese city, it may be difficult to imagine such a thing. And so, many of us nowadays may start to yearn for the past and a more traditional way of life.
Such was the case with Zhu Li and Chen Lei-Yu, who had been friends since they were kids. When they grew up, one had opened a shop in Hangzhou, while the other one worked a conventional nine to five in Shanghai. One day, Li sent Lei-Yu some woodwork photos, and coincidentally this was something that his friend was also doing. Some time later, they teamed up and opened a carpentry workshop called Zowoo. During their normal hours of operation, Zowoo is Zhu Li and Chen Lei-Yu’s creative workspace; while on the weekends, Zowoo also offers woodwork classes to teach carpentry enthusiasts and hobbyists how to make some small things out of wood.
Zhu Li studied design at first, before opening a small business in Hangzhou that sold original works by young designers, trying to help them find more creative freedom in the commercial marketplace. But perhaps because he is an introvert by nature, Zhu Li soon realized that there was a gap between reality and his idealism for creative freedom. Soon after selling the shop, he went to the countryside to find a house in a village, bought some equipment, and started playing around at home with woodworking, simply because it was something that one person could accomplish, and it felt worthwhile just to be able to work with his own hands.
Chen Lei-Yu, on the other hand, seemed destined for white-collar management work. It was five or six years ago when he just wanted to buy a simple wood coffee table. When he looked online, he started to become interested in woodworking and carpentry, and later continued studying how to make things by hand. Moving away from his management job to become an art director of woodworking at Shanghai Disneyland, he later eventually founded Zowoo with his friend. Lei-Yu believes that compared to the past when one had to spend three to five years to learn the whole craft, modern woodworking is much more simplified because it is already mostly mechanized. Just about anyone and everyone could take part now, even people in big cities.
Zowoo, for Zhu Li and Chen Lei-Yu, is about having a balance of practical living and pursuing one’s own personal goals. “At the beginning when we started this space, our first hope was that this was a place where everyone was willing to stay for a while. Secondly it needed to be a thing of beauty. We wanted others to see that it wasn’t a rigid or austere way of living – and perhaps it could inspire others, to pursue the kind of lives that they wanted to lead.”
Zowoo believe that woodworking and making things by hand can give people a certain kind of pleasure. For them, they do not think of what they do as an act of “creation”, but rather more simply as “playing”. The ideal scenario for them is a group of like-minded people coming together at the workshop, making things, chatting and conversing. In addition to the sense of accomplishment that one may get from woodworking, it is more important that in that very moment of creating something by hand, one’s heart is set wholly in this act. “The whole process and act (of woodworking) may help you to relax, and it can also allow you to use your imagination, like a child making clay figures all afternoon. It’s that simple.”
Two good friends, one carpentry workshop. There really is no better kind of life.