Faces behind the Makers: Discovering Singapore's Heritage Trades
by Elena Boyce
Entering the Eng Tiang Huat Cultural Heritage shop felt like stepping into a different time. A beautiful shophouse in the Geylang area, it is a treasure trove of Chinese antiques: erhus, pipas, Chinese flutes, glass display shelves filled with beautiful antique textiles, opera props, red banners, antique altar table skirtings, needles, golden threads and an old Singer sewing machine. Here the damaged antique embroidered textiles and opera costumes are being repaired and red Ang Cai banners are made and sold alongside musical instruments and other Chinese traditional cultural objects.
Jeffrey Eng, a master of embroidery crafts, is one of the guardians of Singapore’s heritage. He is the third-generation owner of Eng Tiang Huat, a business named after his grandfather.
Jeff, can you please share with us how Eng Tiang Huat started?
My grandfather arrived in Singapore from Teochew in 1935 and soon after, he bought no. 15 Merchant Road and started making traditional Chinese men’s clothing (mandarin collar shirt with ‘butterfly’ cloth buttons and ‘lantern’ pants, baggy design, overlap folding, tightened with a belt). With several tailors along the same stretch, Tiang Huat faced stiff competition. But my grandfather also occasionally went back to his village in China and brought Chinese made goods back to Singapore, such as the things you can still see here. Slowly my grandfather changed his tailoring business into a ‘general store’ of Chinese cultural products.
In 1939, his family was still in China, and the worst thing could happen, did: the Japanese Occupation of Singapore. All contact with China was lost, and it was a very tragic period for both my grandparents. My grandmother was stranded in China, taking care of their three young children (my aunt, my dad and my uncle). They told me about many incidents that would have cost them their lives, but with blessings they survived.
When the Japanese surrendered, the family was reunited in Singapore, in 1946. My dad, the late Mr Eng Song Leng, was only 11 years old then. He married my mother when he was 22 and gradually took over the business. Like my grandfather, my dad was a very creative person who loved arts and crafts. This passion gave him the advantage to serve the shop’s business better. He achieved recognition from the China trade commission, and grew the business over the years. importing more Chinese Cultural items from different parts of China.
The shop became very popular with many who wanted traditional cultural products. In 1963, We were invited by the Singapore government to set up an exhibition at the National Theatre at Fort Canning. This resulted in involvement with many cultural groups., schools, and clans, leading to Eng Tiang Huat becoming a household name for Chinese Cultural Products. Some said if you went to Eng Tiang Huat and couldn't find the items you wanted, they could not be found in Singapore. It was a very busy period for the shop until towards the new millennium.
How did you become engaged with the family business?
I was born in the shop, and grew up there. In my childhood, the shop was like a playground full of entertainment. The musical instruments, drums, gongs, cymbals, wind and string instruments, opera make-up, swords, spears made it like today’s Toy ‘R’ Us. As a child I was already involved in helping my grandpa and my dad in the daily chores in the shop.
I loved arts and crafts too, even music, especially percussion and wind instruments. After I graduated from high school, I continued helping in the shop while waiting to be enlisted into National Service (NS). When I completed my NS I carried on helping my dad in the shop.
I started with servicing the products in the shop: sewing, stitching the textile tapestries, tuning and repairing musical instruments and making stage props for schools. Dad had no time to teach me, I just watched and learned from mistakes. I was even making deliveries to other shops and department stores to whom we sold wholesale. I learned many things from my grandfather and my dad… not just dealing with our shop’s products but also customers’ relations and making friends with them by sharing. Often, I had to figure out myself how to make things work, how to repair or recreate items requested by customers.
Many times, I received a badly damaged tapestry but due to my customer’s request, as it was of sentimental value, I took the challenge and tried my best to make it good…. I won’t say it’s fantastic after restoration but I could see my customer’s eyes lit up with happiness and satisfaction…very emotional when they tell me how much the item meant to them that is now in a better condition.
In 1994, my dad passed away at the age of 61 from cancer. He was healthy, or rather, looked healthy and one day suddenly he just collapsed in the shop. Luckily, I was with him and was able to get an ambulance and send him to hospital. The doctors expected him to live only three months but we spent almost nine months together before he passed on peacefully.
I was 33 at that time, with the shop and family on my shoulder I was worried, even scared. All I had in mind was not to let my dad down, my family and my grandfather’s name, his shop. I had an elder brother but he had no interest, and he also died very young five years ago. My wife was very supportive and helped me whenever she could after her job in the medical field. Now that she is retired and helping to look after our grandchildren, she still finds time to help me to keep the shop and house.
Jeff, can we talk about the challenges the shop and trade are facing?
To me it’s always about the shop. The business went through several crises, mostly global financial dips, that lowered demand for everything we offer. We are blessed with having our own shophouse and able to survive through bad times. My grandfather and father were frugal, they spent wisely, always thinking of the next generation.
But in today’s modern era, everything is fast, using IT machinery. Crafts using the human touch are slowly and gradually vanishing, the traditional culture too, will slowly vanish.
The patience to wait for the human-touched crafts seems to many to be a waste of time. The human connection through visiting the craftsman, to meet and understand each other in order to create a piece of work for both to appreciate will be things of the past. Even today some of my customers who wish to order a set of red Ang Cai banners for Chinese New Year will just WhatsApp me their details of measurement, I’ll send them photos of my samples and confirm through the mobile phone without meeting and they'll pay me via online transfer. The only time we meet is on collection day.
How long can I sustain this old business? I really don’t know. [For] so long I have had people knocking on my door, whether they are customers or just want to see my shophouse and listen to my stories or doing research about Chinese Cultural Heritage or products… Everyone is most welcome.
Jeff, I noticed that trades are vanishing in Singapore. Two famous master craftsmen recently had to close their businesses (Tay Guan Heng and Yeo Swee Huat Paper Agency). Once the craftsmanship is lost it is very difficult to revive it. Will Singaporeans be able to preserve some trades via videos, notes? Or will they be swept away because of the lack of demand for their products? Do you think that the trades connected to religious beliefs will be sustained?
Religions, festivals, help create business, create crafts, hence employ craftsmen, which is good for the economy and creates community. Whether it’s in the east or west, there will be a demand for crafts in the carrying out of auspicious occasions.
Think of the red door entrance banner, in Teochew called Ang Cai. The material used to be British woolen textile. As wool is expensive, now more synthetics are used, the texture and look are different. Compared to the old banners, new ones don't have that authentic look. But how to explain to those who wish to know what the “authentic” look is, especially to the younger people? As for me I still kept some to show those who want to understand and feel the old material.
Old crafts made by the older craftsmen are made to perfection. Their trials and errors and many experiences enable them to understand the slightest details which make their crafts unusually more beautiful than those produced today.
All the generations before us were able to pass along their knowledge and love of craftsmanship to the future generations. Are we failing?
There’s a sense of respect and discipline and of course the interest inside, which I want to carry on. Having knowledge of old crafts can be a hobby but can’t be a stable income in Singapore these days. When I was in Europe, I could feel the history and arts surrounding me everywhere I went. The environment inspired me to further my experience on my crafts. Likewise, when I was in the historical parts of China or South Korea, I saw there are still many artisans making traditional crafts and making a good living. Probably because these are big countries with a big population where if even a fraction of the people still carry on the tradition, the craftsman can still have a stable income.
What are some traditions surrounding the Chinese New Year? Can the New Year of Rabbit bring us hope?
22 January 2023 welcomes the Chinese New Year of the water rabbit, while the tiger retires till the next cycle (in 12 years’ time) the rabbits get ready to hop in, ushering more hope for everyone.
Traditionally before the Chinese New Year arrives many households will be busy doing their spring cleaning. Some will even choose an auspicious day to do the cleaning. Old and damaged items out, new ones in. The entire house spic and span. My grandfather would replace even the slightest chip on any bowls or plates. Damaged crockeries are considered bad luck. A good set of crockeries also looks good during reunion dinner, a central event during Chinese New Year. A red Ang Cai banner hangs across and above at the front door to announce an auspicious event and to welcome the new year, especially the god of wealth.
Wishing Everyone a Happy and Prosperous Chinese New Year
ENG TIANG HUAT 翁展發
Address: 10 Lorong 24A Geylang
Elena Boyce is currently working on her new photographic project, "Faces Behind the Makers" that aims to create awareness and revive an interest in Singapore's heritage trades. Find out more at www.photoimpressia.com
Contributing Editor: Helena A Cochrane
Helena is a writer and editor for the AWASingapore Magazine, and a watercolor painter. Since 2018, she has been capturing the city sights, one sketchbook page at a time. IG @helena_antolin_cochrane