TONGJIANG, China (Reuters) – You Wenfeng, who belongs to China’s tiny Hezhen ethnic group, is one of the few people in her community who can still make clothing from the skin of fish.
She was not yet born when her kinsmen were thrown into labor camps during Japan’s occupation of Manchuria in the 1930s and 1940s.
“Many Hezhen clans perished, but my mother survived to pass on her fish-skin knowledge to me,” said You, 68.
A Tungusic people native to Siberia and on the Black Dragon river, as the Amur is known in China, the Hezhen rebuilt its population to 5,000 from 300 after World War II.
But that hasn’t stopped the decline of Hezhen culture, including the tradition of making garments from the skin of carp, pike, and salmon.
Few in the current generation are interested in learning the craft. Fish-skin clothing is also no longer a regular part of daily Hezhen attire.
women in Tongjiang, a quiet city near the northeastern border with Russia where she now lives.
Her disciples also learn the Yimakan, a storytelling genre that switches between speech and song in the Hezhen language.
The education is arduous, with You’s acolytes committing to memory songs of fishing, hunting, and ancient tribal conquests through phonetics alone.
With little prompting, You burst into song in her studio apartment during a visit by Reuters, singing of a woman’s wish to bear a son for her hunter-husband.
Hezhen hunters rode on canoes made from birch, or “swift horses”, You said, smiling.
Such is their skill on the water that legend says the Hezhen descended from mermaids.
“When the forests flooded to the treetops, there’d be fish everywhere,” she said. “Just throw your spear into the water and there’d be fish.”
These days, fish are sourced from the marketplace. And instead of tiger bone and deer tendon, embroidery needles and cotton thread are used.
She would de-skin the fish and dry the skin. It is then repeatedly passed through the wooden jaws of a rudimentary press to soften it. The process takes a month. Sewing requires a further 20 days.
Finding commercial functions for fish-skin might save the craft.
Fish-leather has inspired some luxury fashion houses such as Dior and Prada to occasionally include it in their garments and accessories, but the fabric is still largely a curiosity.
“Look at the criss-cross pattern on the skin,” You said. “It’s stronger than most skins.”
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA recently went shopping for a new pair of cowboy boots. There were endless choices: lizard skin, snakeskin, elephant skin, buffalo skin, and the standard cowhide version. “Why not fish skin,” I inquired?
The clerk laughed. “We don’t get many requests for those.”
The idea of fish leather came to me after dulling my filet knife on a large Chinook salmon. Its skin was sufficiently thick that tanning its hide was not a stretch of the imagination. However, I soon found out that my idea was not original.
A brief search of the internet identified several companies that tan fish leather. Products were available in both glazed and suede leather, as well as being dyed in a range of colors. The range of products that can be made from fish leather is astounding. Standard items offered by leather companies include belts, wallets, watch bands, and shoes. The most innovative ones include a hip flask, a hurling ball, golf gloves, and even a bikini! Items made from fish skin were not cheap. Wallets ranged from $50 to $70, belts from $35 to $85, and shoes $300 and up. My favorite, a golf glove with fish leather inserts, was a bargain at $17.75.
While specifics from fish leather companies are considered trade secrets, general tanning methods are similar to those used for animals. I found that many companies first treated skins with water-resistant fats and oils. This step helps keep the product supple. Sea Leather Wear (www.sealeatherwear.com) reported using a 30-day chemical and mechanical process that included churning, soaking, and vacuum drying. A final step in commercial processing includes cleaning with water and dirt-repellent chemicals. Skins used for shoes are processed with a layer of polyurethane or “glaze” to protect against scratches and stains. Each product is unique and is purported to have no fishy odor.