In the midst of a workshop of freshly engraved tombstones and ornate urns on display, we were greeted by Mr Darren Tan and his father, Mr Johnny Tan, who have been involved in the funerary business for almost 50 years. Together, they share with us their company’s humble beginnings and what the future holds for them.

Almost 50 years ago, Mr Johnny Tan, 71, opened Choa Chu Kang Marble Company (CCK Marble), which specialises in engraving services for tombstones and columbarium plaques as well as other related services. His son, Mr Darren Tan, 40, runs a subsidiary of CCK Marble, called The Memorial Specialist. Currently occupying two units in an industrial building, the origins of their business can be traced back to Jalan Bahar where Johnny ran a provision shop that served the local community in the area.

In the late 1960s, the land the provision shop stood on was returned to the government after the land lease expired. The provision shop was no longer a viable business as the land was slated to be used as a cemetery. Johnny began observing the people working at the graveyard and saw the potential of the funerary industry. The then 20-year-old Johnny and his father, Mr Tan Kai Kee, who was almost 50, approached a master stone craftsman to teach them the trade. Both of them underwent training together in 1968. Two years later, Johnny founded CCK Marble with his father’s help.

An early photo of the late Mr Tan Kai Kee (seated) with family members. Photo courtesy of Mr Darren Tan

As Johnny related the story of CCK Marble, Darren would chime in with his own memories of his grandfather. Darren described his grandfather as “a hardworking person who would help to get customers and was always cycling around the whole cemetery to take care of it even till his old age. In fact, he was often recognised by his bicycle.” His grandfather continued working into his 70s before he retired.

CCK Marble at its first premise in Jalan Bahar, opposite Choa Chu Kang cemetery. Photo courtesy of Mr Darren Tan

Credited with designing the tombs of David Marshall (Singapore’s first chief minister elected in 1955) and Ng Teng Fong (founder of Far East Organisation in 1960), Johnny is one of the few remaining masters skilled in the manual engraving of tombstones with the chisel and hammer. Sadly, it is likely that when he retires, the skills he has acquired will not be passed down. In Darren’s words, “as time goes by, all these skilled workers are getting old[er] and [the] majority of the younger generation [do] not want to come into this trade to learn this skill.” It seems that Johnny foresaw this inevitable outcome years ago and, hence, introduced machines to the production process.

A sandblaster machine (top) and laser etcher (bottom) that were brought in to replace the manual labour required to engrave and carve tombstones and grave markers. Photo by Terence C. Fong

Productivity has undoubtedly increased with the help of machines capable of sandblasting and laser etching. Johnny would have previously needed two days to complete the manual engraving for one stone tablet. With these machines, 10 tablets can be produced in a day. This marked change has not only boosted productivity but also heralded a change in their business model, which is now helmed by Darren.

2018 marks Darren’s 17th year in the business. Upon graduating from Singapore Polytechnic with a diploma in mechanical engineering, Darren first worked as an engineer in a factory and then as a purchaser in Indonesia. “I told my dad that since he built up this company from scratch, it’ll really be a pity for me not to continue it. That’s why I decided to quit my job and help my dad to see if we could improve the business further,” Darren related. Darren’s elder sister now also assists him in managing the business.

When Darren first joined the company, he started from the bottom to get hands-on experience. He was involved in the daily aspects of the business process from meeting customers to designing the tombstones, overseeing their installation and eventually collecting the ashes of the deceased. Looking back, Darren is truly appreciative of this experience as “it equipped [him] with an understanding of what was critical and needed to be improved for the business.”

In 2016, Darren branched out and started The Memorial Specialist, an offshoot of CCK Marble, which specialises in the cremation-related aspects of the business. This makes up about 95 percent of the business today, while Johnny handles burial services.

Mr Darren Tan (left) with his father, Mr Johnny Tan (right) in front of The Memorial Specialist. Photo by Terence C. Fong

It was an opportune time to start The Memorial Specialist as it coincided with the state’s reduction of land used for burial sites due to land shortage in Singapore as well as a demand for better quality and a greater range of funeral services. The basic setup of foldable tables and plastic chairs are now complemented by options for service staff, onsite wi-fi connection and provision of photo montages. Hence, Darren’s staff are professionally attired in uniforms and present the company’s range of services to clients using mobile devices. The business also carries a range of modern keepsake jewelry designed to hold some of the deceased’s ashes as a memento.

To keep up with the times, urns are designed to be more decorative, such as the pendants and ornate seashell pictured. Photo by Terence C. Fong

Due to the nature of the business, employees have virtually no days off. “It’s not like normal jobs. If people pass away [during] the first few days of Chinese New Year, you still have to attend to them. This sometimes includes Saturdays and Sundays when we have to work, but now we have a bigger team so we try to rotate so that everyone has a chance to rest on a weekend,” Darren said.

Father and son in front of the company founded by Johnny 48 years ago. Photo by Terence C. Fong

Despite the irregular hours, what keeps Johnny and Darren going is the satisfaction they derive from providing peaceful rest to the departed and the appreciation shown by their families even years after. Johnny still receives small tokens of appreciation and recounted how Ng Teng Fong’s son sent him kueh lapis as a thank-you on behalf of the family.

Like any family business, continuity remains a concern but Darren is unfazed. He shares his father’s philosophy: just as Johnny never expected him to join the business, Darren does not expect the fourth generation to do so. Darren does not put any pressure on them and only hopes that the next generation can undertake the business for the purpose of taking care of families in such times of need.


Written by: Terence C. Fong

This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign


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