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A tobacco pipe maker’s pursuit of international acclaim


Chris Ye Photos: Billie Feng

The mention of tobacco pipes reminds people of historic figures such as Sherlock Holmes, Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein, but a young Chinese of the post-80s generation has chosen to make tobacco pipes with his own hands, purely out of his love for the small object. 

Chris Ye (叶晨宇) has a workshop in the Songzhuang Art Zone (宋庄艺术区) in Tongzhou district, Beijing. Visitors see a display of exquisitely crafted tobacco pipes near the entrance of his over 200-square-meter workshop. “All the tobacco pipes displayed here are made by my own hands and each one of them expresses my understanding of art.”

His admiration for his teachers

Ye enjoyed printing pictures from engraved or etched plates when he was a small child. “I think I was born as an artist. We Chinese people are usually too shy to say this but I dare say that I have been sensitive to art since childhood,” he laughed. He studied painting by himself.

Ye majored in the identification and appreciation of works of art at Peking University. He did several jobs after graduation, such as a relic appraiser and jewellery designer. He was even hired to quarry Hetian jade (和田玉) and manage several jade mines in Xinjiang.

Ye became interested in tobacco pipes through a collection of art works. The interest prompted him to try to make tobacco pipes, but the first ones were not as good as he expected. Then he learned the trade from foreign masters on the Internet and made rapid progress in a short time. Later, a chance meeting with the best maker of tobacco pipes in the world changed his life. “This is my teacher Anne Julie,” he said, pointing at one of the photos hanging on the wall of his workshop, “When she saw one of the tobacco pipes I had made, she gave me a hug, saying ‘You are the best in the world and you should keep on doing it’.” Ye was only an enthusiastic collector of works of art at that time, but Julie’s words inspired him to abandon his stable job in the mining company and set his mind to the making of tobacco pipes. 

Later, Ye was introduced to one other student of Julie named Tom Eltang, who is also a master at making tobacco pipes in Europe. “He is a great teacher too. He visits me every time he comes to Beijing,” Ye said. He doesn’t think it is important for him to be considered as a master. “What an artist needs to do is to express his or her ideas about the world through works of art, and that is enough.”

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