Though there seems to be a recent increase in the number of craftsmen and makers setting up shop in Singapore, not many veteran artisans remain in business. We spoke with longtime leather craftsman Soh Jin Kheng, who fell in love with leathercraft as a young man and has spent the last 30 years dedicated to his art.
Walking into leather craftsman Soh Jin Kheng’s shop-cum-studio, 310 Woodland, was like stepping into a cabinet of curiosities. Small animal figurines such as horses, hippos and beavers were displayed among $40 card cases and $480 doctor bags. Dreamcatchers and Native American headdresses were draped across saddles along with tassels and beads. Everything was made out of leather, in shades ranging from burnished amber to rich chocolate and midnight black.
Instead of explaining the thought processes behind each stage of leather-making, Jin Kheng, 52, preferred to demonstrate the finer points of his craft. “Basically you need to do some planning first,” he said, as he reached for a sample on his worktable to demonstrate his point – a half-completed strap for a lady’s watch in electric blue.
“For example, this watch strap…I have to make a template first, then reconstruct the strap, then transfer the buckles and everything over before doing the stitching.”
Owner of 310 Woodland, full-time leather craftsman Soh Jin Kheng has over 30 years’ experience in leatherwork. Photo by Catherine Nicholas
Jin Kheng stumbled into leathercraft by chance while undergoing his National Service, when he bought a piece of leather from a friend who was also interested in the craft. “That was a long time ago, in 1988…I liked leather, so I wanted to make something lah. Use the leather, cut it, create something. I made a simple pouch.”
In those early days, Jin Kheng spent his free time hanging out at his friend’s shop, experimenting with different kinds of leather, working on various small projects and gradually developing his signature aesthetic.
“I’ve always liked Native American things like feathers, tassels, beads…the kind of thing you see in movies like The Lone Ranger [the iconic American character from the eponymous television series and comic books].” This aesthetic continues to inform his work today; on the day of our interview, Jin Kheng was wearing a pair of khaki suede boots that he had embellished with feathers and tassels. Many of the pieces he designs also bear similar adornments.
“At first I would look in books for things like this, since back then there was no internet. Last time it was difficult, you had to imagine. Now it’s easy, just Google and you can find a lot of pictures,” he said.
After completing his National Service, Jin Kheng worked full-time as a renovation contractor, while still dabbling in leathercraft in his free time. He only considered turning his hobby into a full-time job about two years later, around 1990, when his friend asked him for help with completing an unfinished piece.
“There was this project, a round box where the sides and top had to be wrapped with leather. The person [who started the project] did it halfway and didn’t complete the whole thing. My friend asked me if I could take over, and so I took a look and I thought maybe I could give it a try,” he explained. “I managed to wrap it with leather and do some stitching. That was how I got into [the trade].”
Using the leftover material from that first project, Jin Kheng started to make other small pieces to sell. “From that day onwards, I started practising how to make items for sale. Bags, belts, that kind of thing.” Together with a few friends, he began supplying his creations to retail outfits, as well as to sellers running stalls at pasar malams (night markets).
“[The] thing is, sometimes we would supply them [the pasar malam stallholders] but not receive our money,” he said with a sigh. “So we decided we might as well set up a pasar malam shop and run it ourselves.”
A photo of Jin Kheng’s mother in the 1990s, standing in the pasar malam stall he used to run. Photo courtesy of Soh Jin Kheng
The business eventually moved into a unit at Heeren shopping mall around the mid-1990s, before moving to Orchard Central and finally to the shop’s current location in Orchard Gateway. By that time, the shop previously run by his friend had closed, but not without acquiring a namesake: Jin Kheng decided to name his own venture after that first shop, which had been situated at 310 Woodlands Centre Road.
Along the way, however, Jin Kheng’s business partners decided to move on to other pursuits, leaving him to push on by himself. He was frank about how difficult the intervening years had been. “To set up shop is very easy. But to run a shop is not easy,” he noted dryly. Moreover, competition was less stiff when he first joined the industry. “At the time, most factories were moving out of Singapore. So there were fewer local makers. [In fact,] I bought my sewing machines from old shoemakers who were giving up their businesses.”
By contrast, over the last few years, the growing interest in bespoke or handmade goods has brought with it a new wave of local artisans, saturating the already niche market for handmade leather goods. Many of his younger counterparts – some of whom he trained in the craft – have taken their businesses online, a reach he does not currently have.
“Sometimes it’s very quiet. Sometimes I feel like, aiyah, I’m not young already. Sometimes I think about giving up the shop. I might try to keep things going for another three years and see how things go. I hope it will pick up,” he admitted, “but it’s good that the younger generation is learning.”
“But look. Yesterday, I just made this,” he continued, gesturing at a small heap of tasselled keychains on his worktable. “The customer wanted the original piece to have more tassels, maybe a present for her boyfriend or something. I made a new one for her, and then in the end I decided to make a few more, in different colours, just in case.”
It was clear that the joy he gets from his craft has not diminished over the years. During our interview, Jin Kheng was constantly leaping out of his seat every few minutes to show us some item or other – to fetch a bolt of tangerine snakeskin for us to feel, or root around his shelves in search of something he’d created a while back – even pulling out a small hammer, set of metal stamps and a bottle of water to demonstrate the correct technique for stamping prints at one point.
Jin Kheng at his workstation in the back of the shop, unfurling a roll of buttery-soft orange snakeskin. He mainly works with cow hides, but also uses hides from other animals, including lambskin, snakeskin, lizard skin and crocodile skin. Photo by Catherine Nicholas
Today, Jin Kheng sells a mixture of ready-made items such as wallets, belts, bags, and bracelets as well as other non-leather products like shoes and jeans from other brands, that he had put on sale to attract more walk-in customers. He also accepts orders for custom pieces and repairs. A leather cuff takes only about 30 minutes for him to braid, while a more labour-intensive project like a watch strap or bag can take several hours to a few days.
His shop draws a mix of patrons of all ages in search of “something rare, something not so common”. He has had customers return years later to seek his help with repairing an item or fulfilling an order. He doesn’t always remember their faces, “but when they show me the item I made, I can remember,” he said with a laugh.
In this era of fast fashion, where clothes are made to be bought and discarded, Jin Kheng’s focus on quality products which are built to stand the test of time stands out. “Leather is special,” he said. “The longer you use it, the nicer it becomes.”
It’s a nice contrast to the hyperactivity of mass-market fashion, and a testament to the value of investing in quality pieces. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that Jin Kheng and his shop find ways to triumph over its challenges and endure, just like his creations.
Written by: Chew Hui Lin
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign