"Like water and air, salt is an indispensable part of our lives," says Huang Jian, curator of the Zigong Salt Industry Historical Museum. He has done 27 years of academic research related to salt and its bond with humans.
Huang says salt extraction from wells is very important for people who do not live close to lakes or the sea. Well salt requires more advanced skills and effort to produce than lake salt or sea salt, and is part of a long Chinese tradition handed down from the wisdom of the ancestors.
The Chinese first started getting salt underground through shallow, wide-mouthed wells during the Song dynasty.
Drilling technology improved as craftsmen invented better tools to dig wells through a smaller hole.
The inventions are the foundation of modern digging technology.
"In 1835, the Chinese invented salt-drilling tools that dug down as deep as a kilometre, the first machine in history to achieve such depth," Huang says, smiling proudly.
He wants to show the intelligence and innovation of the Chinese at a salt exhibition at Park Central in Tseung Kwan O. He has brought from his museum all the models of salt-extraction tools to demonstrate drilling, as well as old documents recording salt trading.
"We want people to know a lot of hard work is needed to produce a tiny granule of salt," Huang says. "It's a painstaking process digging down a thousand metres under the scorching sun. You won't treasure something you can easily get."
He also wants people to appreciate that, despite its low cost, salt has many uses.
For example, it enhances beauty: gently rub the areas around your eyes with fine salt and dark circles will disappear, he claims. Huang also shows how to use salt to remove old, hard skin.
Another highlight of the exhibition is an underwater world, which salt sculptor Wang Guowei created from a large block of salt. Wang grew up on a fish farm and developed a love for marine life.
Mermaids, penguins, dolphins and octopuses are stars in his salt sculptures.
The magic of salt at Park Central is on display until August 31. You may try salt carving from August 14 to 21.