Robin Hood and Cupid may have inspired a whole generation of archers but for one man, shooting the target is secondary. Instead of wielding a bow, he prefers to make them.
Phang Sieu Khay has a penchant for doing something out of the ordinary, and swells with pride when he talks about being a bowyer – that would be someone who makes bows.
The hobby happened by chance. He was in a Kepong neighbourhood in Kuala Lumpur and stumbled on an archery shop. He caught sight of an attractive Korean-made bow and at the spur of the moment, purchased it.
It set him back RM800 but Phang decided, why not partake in something uncommon. He walked out carting his bow, not knowing the basics of archery or how to shoot, though the shopkeeper told him where to head for tips.
“When I went over to the archery range in Taman Keramat in Kuala Lumpur, I met a random guy who had a bow made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC). I shot a few arrows but was more intrigued by his bow, went home, looked it up on YouTube and decided to try and make one myself.
“When I first started making PVC bows, I thought it was a niche hobby. Bows and arrows were things one would buy from a shop. Who makes bows, after all?” says the 36-year-old information technology specialist.
The bowyer scene in Malaysia was relatively unheard of, but over time, Phang got to know other makers. He was hooked to the craft, despite being uninterested in the sport.
A weapon of war
History states that archery is one of the oldest arts still being practised today.
Although archery probably dates back to the Stone Age, the earliest people known to have used bows and arrows were ancient Egyptians, who adopted archery at least 5,000 years ago for hunting and warfare.
The popularity of archery is also reflected in many folklore tales and in Greek mythology.
According to the World Archery Federation, the Parthians (from Parthia, a historical region located in north-eastern Iran) were horsemen who developed the skill of swivelling around in the saddle and could shoot backwards at full gallop. Middle Eastern superiority in archer equipment and technique continued for centuries.
In China, archery dates back to the Shang dynasty (1766-1027BCE). A war chariot at that time carried a three-man team comprising a driver, lancer and archer. During the ensuing Zhou dynasty (1027-256BCE), nobles at court attended archery tournaments that were accompanied by music and interspersed with elegant salutations. Genghis Khan famously used this weapon to expand the Mongolian empire from China to Europe. With the introduction of gunfire, the bow was used more for personal exploits, rather than as a war weapon. Since then, archery has developed more as a recreational and competitive sport.
Phang started off making his first prototype for his young daughters, spray-painting his creations with pretty colours. Initially, the kids were delighted with the bows but soon the novelty wore off.
Phang then progressed onto making longer bows using 1.5m PVC pipes and glow-in-the-dark nail polish for added effect.
“It’s like art and craft except that I want my bows to be functional, not just pretty. My fastest bow can shoot up to 44.2m per second but I’m trying to make one that can shoot faster. It’s fun!” says Phang, who used to indulge in photography before he discovered bows.
While his three daughters, aged between a month and six years, are napping during the weekends, Phang sneaks out to work on his bows.
His workstation at the back of his house is filled with PVC pipes, heat guns, string, saws and dowels. As long as the area is kept clean, his wife is happy.
If he shapes a pipe wrongly, Phang has to discard it and restart using use a new pipe. As for arrows, Phang buys them ... for now.
Phang says: “Archery can be an expensive hobby. Losing arrows while practicing archery is part and parcel of the sport. Arrows need replacing every so often. The last half a dozen aluminium arrows I bought cost me RM23 each. I needed a relatively sustainable way of replacing my lost arrows. The alternative to buying arrows would be to make my own.”
Due to the unavailability of wooden dowels thinner than 2.5cm, which are needed to make an arrow, Phang had to resort to making the dowel first.
“I browsed through a few resources on the Internet and it looked easy but I didn’t have all the proper woodworking tools. After much perseverance, head scratching, cursing and missed weekend naps, I finally made a dowel that worked. It took me six tries.” he reveals in his blog.
He’s still experimenting with the arrows, but has made 11 bows in the past 18 months since he took up the hobby.
Since he only spends a few hours every weekend, it takes him three weeks to make a simple bow. To test them, he takes his bows out to the field and shoots arrows at boards when no one is around.
When he’s satisfied with their functionality, he gives them away as gifts. “I have to give them away, otherwise, my wife complains!” he sighs.
So, what’s next on the cards? Phang is ready to attempt making a “real” bow from wood. With his determination and enthusiasm, it won’t take long for this man to meet his target!