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... stories, adventures and all things related to life in Singapore and Southeast Asia by AWA members

Stitching Joy, Luck and Wealth: The Mastery of Keeping the Memories alive

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.