Nestled in a corner of the trendy Duxton neighbourhood, surrounded by bars and yoga studios, Say Tian Hng is the last surviving business of its kind in Singapore. Run by the Ng family for 122 years, the business makes, sells and repairs Taoist idols. We spoke with Mdm Tan Chwee Lian, 87, who used to work in the shop with her late husband, and her grandson Ng Tze Yong, 38, about the history and future of the business.
In another life, Mdm Tan Chwee Lian would have made a fine surgeon.
On a sweltering Saturday afternoon, a group of onlookers – participants in a behind-the-scenes tour of Say Tian Hng – watched in awe as she beat a lump of dough into a rope several inches long and the thickness of embroidery thread, neither flattening nor breaking it in the process. When she was done, she deftly wound the rope onto a small wooden spool, her rhythm never faltering as she worked.
Next, Mdm Tan turned her attention to an idol of a deity resting in front of her, its wooden form polished to a glossy brown. Grasping the spool in her left hand, she picked up a slim paintbrush with her right; brows furrowing in concentration, she carefully unwound the rope of dough onto the idol’s front, gently brushing the pattern as it took shape. In less than a minute, the deity’s robe, a space little bigger than a few square inches, was densely adorned with an intricate motif of loops and curls.
The crowd broke into applause, iPhones snapping away, as outside the shop, construction noise from the main road raged on.
The entrance of Say Tian Hng, located at 35 Neil Road. The shop moved around the Central Business District a few times before moving into its current location in 1990. Photo by Catherine Nicholas.
Say Tian Hng – Hokkien for ‘Heavenly Garden’ – was established in 1896 by Mdm Tan’s father-in-law and his brother, who were first-generation immigrants from Jinmen Island, off the coast of Xiamen in southern China. However, the trade may run as far back in their family as the 14th century; Researchers from Nanyang Technological University believe that was when the ancestors of the Ng clan first picked up their skills from master craftsmen in Tong’an county, China.
According to Mdm Tan, who married into the family at the age of 18, there was no expectation from her in-laws that she should join them in the business. Her interest grew from watching her late husband, Mr Ng Tian Sang, at work.
“I’ve always liked to use my hands to make something,” said Mdm Tan. “My interest grew over time. I’d sit next to my husband every day and watch how he made the statues. When I saw how skilled he was, patiently crafting the intricate parts of the idols, it made me want to learn how to do it myself.”
Mdm Tan recalled how she would observe her husband at work and wait for him to take his breaks. When he got up, she would take up his work and attempt to pick up where he left off – shaping the leg of a statue, finishing a bit of an embellished phoenix. It took her nearly a year to master the craft, after which she joined her husband in the shop.
“It wasn’t easy to juggle working and raising my family,” recalled Mdm Tan, a mother of seven and now a great-grandmother. “I had to wake up early in the morning to get the kids ready to go to school. I could only start working on the filigree after they left and then I’d work until 5 or 6.00 pm.”
Mdm Tan demonstrating part of the crafting process on an idol. She has used the same set of tools for years, to the point that one of the instruments (not pictured) has the indent of her thumb worn into the wood. Photo by Catherine Nicholas.
The crafting process begins with neither an awl nor chisel but an almanac, which Mr Ng Yeow Hua – Mdm Tan’s oldest son and the shop’s manager – consults for an auspicious date to start working on the piece. Only then will the carving of the deity’s likeness from a block of camphor wood, a task that requires an experienced eye, begin.
The statue is then glazed with successive layers of coatings, hand-painted, and, in some cases, finished with ornate motifs like dragons, phoenixes and peonies. These used to be made with a dough formed from the ashes of joss sticks, but with such ashes now harder to come by, the shop uses a paste which it makes itself.
Finally, the idol is blessed. In the old days, this would have been done by dotting various parts of its body with blood from the coxcomb of a white rooster, before handing it over to the customer. These days, Mr Ng picks an auspicious date and says some prayers while blessing the idol with a special ink.
The family estimates the shop’s current stock at around 500 to 600 idols, spanning some 30 to 40 deities in the Taoist pantheon. Many of these were painstakingly crafted by Mdm Tan, her husband, and Mr Ng, though a few were picked up by the latter during his travels around the region. An unpainted statuette around 8 or 9 inches tall costs between $300 to $400, while a finished version, complete with paintwork and embellishments, retails for $1,300.
If that seems like a lot to fork out, bear in mind that it takes Mdm Tan and Mr Ng around a month to produce a single idol from start to finish; the price reflects the level and quality of the workmanship that goes into each piece. There are, for example, 30 different types of eyebrow designs alone. Their attention to detail is so keen that they even paint the deity’s eyeballs differently, depending on where the idol is meant to be placed.
“If it’s for a home altar, the eyes of the idol are painted to angle downwards, so that they will meet worshippers’ [when they kneel directly in front of the effigy to pray],” explained Tze Yong. Conversely, for large statues which are destined for temples, their eyes are painted with less of a downward slant, so that they can look out over a congregation of devotees.
The different stages in the production of an idol. All the idols crafted by Say Tian Hng begin their lives as plain blocks of wood, which are slowly transformed into works of art. Photo by Catherine Nicholas.
When Mdm Tan began working in the shop in 1949, business was fairly steady, buoyed by greater numbers of devotees willing to shell out for a top-quality product. “It’s religion,” said Tze Yong. “People bought these idols for guidance and protection, and in many cases, would only buy one in their whole lives.”
Like today, most of the shop’s stock came ready for customers to buy off-the-shelf, but the family also accepted special commissions, such as for occasions to mark the birthday of a deity. According to Mdm Tan, these special orders would come from temples and sometimes spirit mediums, who would give them specific instructions regarding the deity’s colours, posture, outfit and the like.
Deities in the shop’s repertoire span two categories: mythical figures and historical figures who actually lived. The former includes deities such as Sun Wukong (the Monkey God), and Ne Zha (the Third Lotus Prince), while the latter includes figures like the military general Guan Gong, whose valour and loyalty were immortalised in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. All three are among the shop’s most popularly requested orders.
With over a century’s worth of creations to their name, it’s little surprise that the shop’s creations have sometimes wound up in unexpected places. In fact, the family recently got a call from the National Museum of Singapore, which had found an old creation of theirs – a worn statue of Xuan Wu made in 1959 – in their storage vaults. Through the peeling paint on the base of the statue, a curator managed to make out the shop’s name and tracked them down.
In recent years, however, the shop’s future has grown increasingly uncertain. Sales have plummeted from their levels of yesteryear; for all its focus on quality and attention to detail, the business simply cannot compete with mass-produced statues which can be machine-manufactured and sold for a fraction of the price.
Moreover, Mdm Tan retired several years ago, and management of the shop – from creating the statues to ordering supplies – is now solely carried out by Mr Ng, whom Tze Yong refers to as a ‘66-year-old one-man show’. Although Tze Yong and his younger brother, Tze Chong, are recording and codifying their grandmother’s knowledge of the crafting process, neither have immediate plans to leave their day job to take over the business.
Tze Yong (with a statue of Ne Zha in hand) giving a talk about some of the gods in the Taoist pantheon. He and his brother meet with their grandmother every Tuesday to learn about the crafting process, storing their notes in a labyrinth of Google Drive and Evernote folders. Photo by Catherine Nicholas.
With the shop’s future at stake, Tze Yong – who grew up at the shop, spending weekends and festive occasions there with his family – is aware that a solution is desperately needed. Although his father and grandmother never insisted that he take over the business, questions about the future of the shop continued to dog him as his own career took off and he had started a family of his own.
“In the back of my mind, I’d always be wondering, what’s going to happen to the shop?” he said. “My dad’s not getting any younger.”
It wasn’t until 2016 when he hit on the idea of running the workshops, born out of his graduate work for a Master’s degree in Strategic Design and Management at New York’s Parsons School of Design. “I used that as an opportunity to spend a year thinking about the future of the shop,” he explained. “How might we approach it through a design lens? How are we going to redesign the business model of this shop for the future?”
When dry runs of the workshop proved popular, the family pitched the concept to Airbnb, which curates off-the-beaten-track activities for tourists on their Airbnb Experiences platform. They were accepted and the workshops have been running every month since the middle of 2017.
All four generations of the family were roped in to help with the workshops, even Tze Yong’s eight-year-old daughter, Amelia, who gives a short presentation during the sessions.
Although the brothers expected their audience to be mostly comprised of tourists, they were pleasantly surprised that the majority of their attendees – around 70% to 80% – have been Singaporeans. Tze Yong attributes this in part to scheduling; as the workshops are held only once a month, tourists with only a few days to spend in Singapore might prefer to fill their itineraries with more popular tourist attractions.
However, he is glad that the shop’s nostalgic charm has won over curious locals. “It shows that there are Singaporeans who appreciate all this and want to learn about it. In any case, the tours are really nice [for us]. They bring the family together once a month and keep this challenge [about the future of the shop] at the forefront of our minds.”
He is aware, however, that running the workshops alone will not solve the underlying issue of the business’ sustainability. To that end, he and his brother have been busy brainstorming ways of taking the business forward, although they have not yet settled on a clear direction.
“These [workshops] are the icing on the cake. We still need to find the cake, which is the business model,” he said. “But I think this is an opportunity. You reach a point when you have to take a step back and ask yourself, what is my product all about? You’re forced to dig deeper and reconnect with your audience in a way you never really had to before.”
In an ideal world, however, the ‘Heavenly Garden’ would enjoy the same immortality as the objects of divinity it births.
“We don’t want this business to die. Really, the ideal scenario for us would be that there wouldn’t be a need to archive this place for future generations, because the shop would still be around. That’s the goal we’re aiming for.”
Written by: Chew Hui Lin
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign