Every KK Fu blade comes with a logo etched into it, the twin swooshes of his initials doubling up on that Nike ‘Just Do It’ insignia. It is an exercise in branding but in the best possible way. It goes way beyond a logo, instead a quiet mark of quality. Promotion, particularly of the ‘self’ variety, makes him visibly uncomfortable. “A lot of people ask me how my blades are,” he says, seriously. “But you cannot get an answer from me. You have to go down to the market in Bau and ask there. Then people will tell you how sharp KK blades are.” He refuses to market himself online. People have to visit his workshop, look him in the eye and hold the blade in their hand before they buy. “They have to come here and see for themselves.”
For this, he can be found on Jalan Blacksmith in Bau, so named because it once housed four blacksmiths in a row, all shuttered except for his one remaining shop. One of these originals was his father, Ching Fah, who learned the profession in China before setting up in Bau. The sign above the door proudly states the date as 1937, a long tradition that saw KK entering the trade at the tender age of sixteen. A lifetime of refining his process has followed. His father only handed over to him when he was able to answer all his questions and even argue a little over techniques. Then he knew he was ready.
The process is all fire, steam, sparks, flame and the hard edge of steel, suffused in the rhythmic chug of motors and scream of grinders. It is hot; glowing charcoal, luminous red metal, the physical exertion of wielding a 7-pound sledgehammer. It starts with high carbon steel, which is then cut, pounded with a power hammer, sharpened, pounded by hand, re-sharpened and shaped into whichever tool is required. It is several stages, by hand and by eye, working the material until the perfect blade emerges: beating, filing, stretching and soothing the steel into submission. The last stage is the tempering, creating the strength in the steel. But this is a KK trade secret, the stage that he refuses to share, and all photos are suspended. He must maintain some mystery, after all, and preserve his process.
In fact, this process is almost unchanged from his early days. Some people have switched to gas, he says, but he has stuck with the charcoal. It takes longer to heat but can achieve the same levels and he has the skill to use charcoal. In terms of equipment, the power hammer is really the last innovation to come through the doors, hulking in size, dramatic in sound. But that was more than 20 years ago. Before its arrival, he says, they simply had a bigger hammer. He is, indeed, Thor. He claims that they haven’t modernized because it is too costly but then, with a little thought, he adds that this is ‘up to preference.’ He likes it this way because he is familiar with it.
Yet, he says, he always likes to improve. But, for him, this does not come from better machines; it comes from training the eye and steadying the hand. His improvements are all internal. This is a journey of the soul, of creativity, of expression, of his own skill and adaptability. He is an avid reader of Chinese philosophy and this is apparent in every aspect of his work. This is no factory process of identical products. He must draw out the potential of his materials, using whatever is available to him. At one time they used iron sheets, then switched to rebars, not good he says, and even old chainsaw blades. Now they salvage leaf springs from trucks and reinvent them. Each one comes in a different shape and size. He sees a design in his head, finds the appropriate spring and he is away. It is rural resourcefulness at its best, kampung engineering.
At one stage, however, he reinvented himself as a ‘Blade Designer’, an unexpectedly flashy title for such a self-effacing man. He even has an artistic, hand-drawn business card. But once again, this is not a sign of external ego or cynical marketing. It is instead an internal journey of freedom, self-expression and creativity unleashed. “If you call yourself a blacksmith, then it gives the impression that you produce a fixed set of work,” he explains. “But calling yourself a blade designer gives you the freedom to create.” Though it has helped a little with the marketing, he admits.
Before the arrival
of the power hammer,
they simply had
a bigger hammer
His walls are lined with the typical parangs and farming implements, but one corner displays the evidence of the freedom he has granted himself – orc choppers, elven swords, fantasy weapons with hardwood handles of great beauty. Each is a one-off. He makes the blades and then a Bidayuh woodworker makes the grip, which he fuses to the hot steel with a hiss of singed timber. He doesn’t dictate the shape of the handle. It is up to their own creativity, he says. Some of these blades will hang on the wall for years, waiting for their rightful owners to appear and eventually, with enough patience, they always do.
He can’t explain how to choose the perfect parang, the Southeast Asian blade that is used in every household for every job from clearing jungle to cutting fruit. It comes down to the individual weight of the blade, the shape of the handle and the heft in your hand. He equally refuses to recommend. He simply tells you to swing each blade slowly, to feel its call. He tells the story of a customer who bought a blade from him, one that had been sitting unclaimed in the shop for over three years. It quickly became his favourite blade and this inspired him to order a replica in better materials. Despite this, the blade was not as good. In the end, he says, the blade chooses the owner.
On the surface, this is a simple man with a simple life. He has survived in this trade in a small town doing the same work, day in day out long after the others have gone. At the end of each day, he says, he likes to go out in his garden or simply stare at the hills beyond, the fluid shapes of nature tempering the hard edges. He describes himself as merely ‘satisfied’ when people recognize his work. Then he is doing it ‘the correct way.’ But deep down, this is a man of endless complexity, driven to iteration, innovation and improvement. All this on the inside, but borne out in the blade.
a blade designer
gives you the
freedom to create.”