The intoxicating scent of sweat and varnish engulfed our senses the moment we entered the workshop. Wood shavings lay scattered all over the floor, amid raw blocks of wood that were patiently waiting to be carved into ornate pieces of elegant furniture, just like the ones that sat demurely in the corner. This is Wah King Furniture, a furniture workshop that has spanned three generations and is currently helmed by Mr Du Wah King, 81, and his son, Mr Kenneth Du, 35.
Mr Du Wah King, the master craftsman, was looking refreshed having just awoken from his mid-day slumber. We glanced about, looking for a hammock or simple recliner made with multi-colored PVC tubings (a perennial favourite of the older generation), but neither were in sight. It seemed his preferred place of rest was atop a thin plank propped up by one of the workshop’s machines and his “pillow” was an unfinished block of wood barely the size of a clenched fist. “I can’t sleep on anything else, not even a normal pillow,” Mr Du said a-matter-of-factly as we studied the improvised “pillow” in amazement.
Mr Du (left) and his son, Kenneth (right) at the workshop. Image courtesy of Onedash22
Looking at the love and appreciation that Mr Du has for his craft, one would not expect that his love affair with carpentry was born less out of passion and more out of practicality.
“I was studying, at that time, in China before going to Hong Kong in the 1970s. While I was there, I had to find a way to feed myself to survive,” recounted Mr Du as he watched the goings-on in the workshop. Finding a job in Hong Kong then proved to be difficult as he was not conversant in English. By a stroke of luck, he met a master craftsman who offered him a job in his workshop. “Each job I did was worth $30 but I would only be paid $10, and he asked if I still wanted to do it. It was not the best deal but I said yes because I had to survive,” shared Mr Du on this chance encounter that changed the course of his life.
Looking back, Mr Du regarded himself fortunate to be able to learn from a master craftsman, picking up the skills have that brought him to where he is today. The more wood crafting he did, the more it grew on him, an interest that has continued burning in him until today.
Mr Du at work in his Defu Lane workshop. Photo courtesy of Norman Ng
It seems odd, then, that Mr Du did not continue his apprenticeship, while in his teens, with his father, who had also been a wood craftsman. He elaborated, “My father was a wood craftsman but what he did was the more common and basic type of furniture.” Mr Du came to Singapore from Hong Kong just as the market was changing, with customers having greater expectations; hence, a skillset on basic furniture alone would have lost its relevance quickly. Though Mr Du had learnt the basic skills during his time in Hong Kong, he spent more time researching and developing them when he was in Singapore. As a result, he became more proficient at creating more advanced and complex designs.
After Mr Du’s father came to Singapore, he set up a factory situated at Kallang Pudding. When the area was earmarked for development, the factory moved to Jurong, subsequently shifting to Ubi, then Lorong Balai, before finally settling in Defu Lane in 1987, where it has remained until now.
Our interview was punctuated by sounds of construction – wood being aggressively sanded down, tools being thrown haphazardly into tool boxes and the rhythmic whirr of machines – a symphony that made the workshop pulsate with a life of its own.
A workshop assistant using traditional techniques to secure furniture joints without the use of nails or adhesive. Image courtesy of Onedash22
In an age with factory-made furniture widely and easily available online, Wah King Furniture continues to hold its own in traditional carpentry. The time-tested skills of the workshop’s craftsmen are evident from the wood joinery techniques they use. The joinery techniques used in traditional carpentry depend solely on precision-cut joints that fit one another without the need for nails or bindings and fasteners in their final assembly.
When asked about the differences in woodworking techniques between yesteryear and now, Mr Du shared that “in the past, we did everything by hand while today, many machines help us with our work. The machines are fast and precise, so we try to use them as much as we can to achieve consistency.” While he had no qualms about the advantages of using machines in the production process, he had his reservations about incorporating computers and automation into the workflow. “Our output is on a small scale so there is no point. And when a customer shows us a picture reference, the design and engineering has to be thought out by us. If we include the use of computers, a lot of time will be wasted,” he explained.
A detailed carving for an order being carried out at the workshop. Photo courtesy of Norman Ng
Another concern of Mr Du’s was profitability. With the cost of raw materials steadily increasing, their profit margins have inevitably been affected. For one, the choice of material is mostly determined by its price. He explained how camphor wood and teak, favoured for their unique properties, are often costly and substituted by the cheaper rosewood. For instance, a table made of camphor wood that would have cost about $2,000 in the past has now rocketed to $5,000. Mr Du is aware of the market conditions and knows too well that “if the quoted price is too high, business will be affected if customers are not willing to pay that much.” So to keep Wah King Furniture running, he has had no choice but to accept a cut in their profits. He seemed very much resigned to the truth that despite being artisans, their survival was ultimately dependent on the customer’s spending power.
The younger Du, Kenneth, is also aware that the future of Wah King Furniture cannot depend on producing traditional furniture alone. He hopes to marry traditional carpentry and modern techniques with his knowledge of the two, and bring new life to old furniture as well as create new pieces that can extend the reach of his customer base.
The threat from e-commerce with its cheaper and more convenient ways weighs heavily on the mind of the elder Du, a worry and concern shared by many local family craft trades. Fortunately, the onerous task of sustaining his family’s legacy is shared with his son who has plans to keep the family business in line with the times without compromising the quality of their workmanship.
Written by: Terence C. Fong
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign