Skip to content
Kam artist weaving on wooden loom

A Kam woman weaves traditional fabric on a loom

  • Print
Arts and Culture

Pacific students use art to save ancient Chinese culture

Students launch online store that benefits Chinese artisans in remote village of Dimen.
Johanna BakmasAug 18, 2015

Singing Hands, a fair trade artisan cooperative run by students and faculty at University of the Pacific, has launched a website and online store benefiting artists living in remote areas of China. Working with ethnic Kam women artisans, Singing Hands has reinvented traditional art forms by developing a contemporary line of handmade products including fabric bags, jewelry, ornaments and paper stationary.

Marie Anna Lee, associate professor of graphic design at University of the Pacific, founded Singing Hands in the summer of 2014 with the support of the Dimen Dong Cultural Eco Museum in the remote village of Dimen in Guizhou province. Under Lee's leadership, graphic design students have been working closely with artisans to develop prototypes of products that merge contemporary design with tradition. Sacha Joseph-Mathews, associate professor of marketing at the Eberhardt School of Business, and her students helped develop the store's marketing strategy.

"I love that I'm able to use what I've learned in the classroom and apply it to help preserve another culture's beautiful motifs," says Binaypreet Singh '16, a double major in graphic design and psychology.

The products are now available online at singinghands.org.

Kam artist bags

"While apprenticing with the Kam women, I noticed how contemporary their designs looked and had the idea of combining their traditional motifs and materials with modern techniques like screen printing to create products that could be sold for profit," says Lee. "Sales from these products sustain Kam families by allowing them to make a living from their traditional lifestyle. I saw this as a win-win situation for everyone, including our Pacific students."

All fabrics are handmade on wooden looms and hand-dyed with local plants following techniques that have been passed down from mother to daughter for centuries.
It is customary for Kam artists to sing while working, hence the cooperative's name. Kam people are so renowned for their polyphonic singing that the Kam Grand Choir was designated a world-class intangible cultural heritage in 2009 by UNESCO. Their song has also been chronicled in a National Geographic article written by famed Chinese-American author, Amy Tan.  

"They carry their history in their songs, as they do not have a written language," says Lee. In an area where the average family income is $1,000 annually, many villagers are forgoing their traditional way of life and moving to larger cities to find work. 

"By purchasing these products, you allow artisans to work from home. They do not have to leave for faraway factories that exploit the migrant workforce," says Lee. Following the fair trade model, all profits go directly to the artisans.

To celebrate the grand opening, use promo code 'grandopening' to receive a 20 percent discount on items purchased via the online store.