A tradition carved in wood, a business of passion
Koror— Since 1998, Tebang Shop has been serving as a foundation that keeps a Palauan tradition alive. The shop specializes in the iconic Palau storyboard, and its owner, master carver Ling Inabo, seeks to build the next generation of wood carvers.
The art of storyboard carving began to flourish in the 1930s, when Hisataku Hijikata, a Japanese artist and folklorist, came to Palau and discovered the Palauans’ skills.
Storyboard has always been part of Palau’s culture as depicted in the crossbeams inside Palau abai, the traditional men's meeting house. Hidjikata developed the idea of turning such skill into a source of income for local residents. So instead of applying their skills only on decorating abai, the carvers expanded their medium and began carving on pieces of wood and selling them to visitors. At that time when Hidjikata was in Palau, the Japanese population was still growing and Palau was also a destination for Japanese tourists, so there was that commercial consideration.
Although storyboards are popular among tourists, the business aspect doesn’t guarantee a windfall. Tebang makes between $3,000 and $5,000 a month, just enough to keep the shop afloat, Inabo said. Tebang usually gets custom-made order from other shops and government agencies.
Woodcarving is more of a passion for Inabo. Although he has kept the shop open for many years, it doesn’t make enough money to send his children to school. “But I am happy to come to work in the shop from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.,” he said.
The storyboard carving art has evolved throughout the years. The earlier storyboards were simply square-shaped pieces of wood. Inabo later diversified his designs by carving different shapes like fish.
Before opening the Tebang shop, Inabo was in the nightclub business, a money-making venture. He later decided he wanted to cash in on his talent for the arts, so Inabo opened the shop. Nineteen years later, the shop is still standing. In 2013, the shop’s second floor was destroyed by typhoon Haiyan in 2013, the business went on.
Inabo also keeps the shop to teach young Palauans to learn the art of carving, in fact once they finished a carving, he would immediately pay them for their piece and sell them afterward.
In the jail, woodcarving serves as a form of rehabilitation and a source of income for inmates. However, Inabo said once an inmate has served his sentence and gets out of prison, they usually stop carving, because they no longer have access to tools or a place to carve. He urged the government to provide assistance by opening a venue for carvers or those interested in this form of art to hone their skills.