“We’re the first in the world to have this kind of family business for three generations,” says 96-year-old Bong Ju Lee, the founder and grandmaster of Napcheong Yugi. His hand-crafted bronzeware masterpieces are so celebrated that he’s been appointed Important Intangible Cultural Property — a government-granted title that officially designates skilled people and their products worthy of historical preservation — in Korea.
“Youth need to develop and create a masterpiece that the whole world desires. I always teach this to my children,” says Bong Ju Lee. He’s talking about passing down his knowledge of yugi, also known as bangjja — the art of hand-forging bronze tableware that’s historically used by Korean royals. Today, it’s often used in the traditional presentation of Korean royal court cuisine, and Bong Ju Lee is known as the iconic craftsman for these pieces. He is the reference point for bangjja in South Korea, and a number of his pieces are now exhibited at the Daegu Bangjja Brassware Museum.
At his humble shop, Bong Ju Lee, his son, and at least four other workers are all necessary to work together to heat, pound, cut, and pull the various pieces of metal into the desired shapes. “If they can’t coordinate, we won’t do it. If one person doesn’t show up because he’s hungover, they all have the day off,” says Bong Ju Lee. The pieces then go through a chemical process to give them a shiny, metallic finish.
“When I see my creations, I feel pleased, and it makes me happy to see other people enjoy it.” Bong Ju Lee says. “For me, work is my hobby. I’m happiest when I work.If you don’t hear me hammering, it means Bong Ju Lee is dead.”
Check out the video to see the coordination, master craftsmanship, and attention to detail used by Bong Ju Lee and his team to make their bronzeware pieces.