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ALL WOMEN, ALL WALKS OF LIFE, ALL NATIONALITIES

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

Weaving a Family Legacy: The Singaporean Craft of Rattan Furniture Making

Faces Behind the Makers: Discovering Singapore's Heritage Trades

by Elena Boyce


The use of rattan as a material for furniture can be traced back to ancient Egypt, where it was also used to create baskets and other household items. The ancient Greeks and Romans as well used rattan in their furniture, including chairs and tables.


In the centuries of English colonial rule in Southeast Asia, rattan furniture was prized for both its exotic and comfortable character, among the wealthy in Europe and America. Rattan chairs, tables, shelving and even bed frames were brought from Singapore and Malaysia to adorn the interiors of European homes. Rattan is most suitable, however, for use in manufacturing outdoor furniture due to its durability and resistance to the elements.


In the 20th century, the popularity of rattan furniture surged once again with the rise of the Art Deco movement. Rattan appeared frequently in designs for furniture items, and it became integral to the style of the era.


The Rattan chair made by Mdm Lee Joon

Today, rattan furniture is still popular across climates and continents, and continues to be used in a wide range of furniture designs. It is a versatile and durable material suitable for use both indoors or outdoors. From traditional to modern designs, rattan furniture has proven to be timeless and adaptable.


Chen Foon Kee and his wife Mdm Lee Joon are among the few remaining rattan furniture makers in Singapore. Their store at Alexandra Village, CHUN MEE LEE Rattan Furniture, is a testament to the longevity of the trade and the hard work that goes into it.


The story of their family business began when Mr. Chen's father learned the trade of rattan furniture making in Hong Kong in 1925 at the age of 18. He came to Singapore in 1932 and opened his first shop at Victoria Street. Mr. Chen learned the trade from his father, starting his apprenticeship at the young age of 14. His parents believed that teenagers need to be busy to stay out of trouble, and put his young son to work. Mr. Chen learned a trade that would not only give him a living but would result in his being among the best in the business. So began his position today as the rattan weaver known throughout Singapore for his craftsmanship.

Mr. Chen working on a chair at his shop

It was a demanding apprenticeship: "It took me three to four years working non-stop to learn the trade and over eight years to achieve mastery," says Mr. Chen. He and Mdm Lee Joon have been working together for almost five decades, weaving together the threads of their family legacy. When Mr. Chen married Mdm Lee Joon in 1974, he taught her the trade of rattan weaving, and together they are now masters of the craft.


The portrait of Mdm Lee Joon

Their store saw its busiest years from 1975-1990, where they produced furniture for customers from Holland and Germany, many of them sailors docked in Singapore who would take the hand-crafted materials home on their ships. The demand for rattan furniture may have slowed down since its peak in those decades , but Mr. Chen is firm in his beliefs that it is a heritage trade that should be preserved. The furniture is comfortable and perfect for the tropical climate. "Summer is my favorite season," says Mr. Chen, "and rattan furniture is the best furniture for warm seasons. We are lucky that every day is a summer day in Singapore."


Unfortunately, the trade is facing many challenges that threaten its survival. High rent and problems with raw materials are just some of the issues that Mr. Chen and Mdm Lee Joon must contend with. Currently, most of the work Mr. Chen does in his shop is repairs of furniture built some years ago. Furthermore, there is a little interest in hand-weaving rattan amongst younger Singaporean craftspersons, making it challenging to pass down the trade to the next generation. However, there is a glimmer of hope. Mdm Lee Joon had a young student named Si Ying (NTU alumni) who started her artistic journey with rattan at the CHUN MEE LEE Rattan Furniture store on Bukit Merah Rd.



Mr Chen remains hopeful that his son will be able to continue the family business and carry on the legacy of rattan furniture making. With his years of experience and expertise, he hopes to pass on his skills to the next generation and ensure that the heritage of rattan furniture-making lives on.


A baby chair and a table that can be converted into a stool Furniture that remains memorable to Singaporeans

The story of CHUN MEE LEE Rattan Furniture is one of hard work, dedication, and a passion for preserving the craft of rattan furniture making. The family business has survived for generations, and Mr. Chen and Mdm Lee Joon continue to weave their legacy together. In their Alexandra Village store, the beauty and comfort of rattan furniture is everywhere to see. In fast-paced Singapore, their steady hard work and beautiful wares should be valued, celebrated and preserved for generations to come.


Mr. Chen and Mdm Lee Joon with their son in front of the shop

Chun Mee Lee Rattan Furniture

Address - Blk 122 Bukit Merah Lane 1 (Alexandra Village) #01-68 S150122


 



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. See www.photoimpressia.com



Contributing Editor Helena A Cochrane has been a writer for the AWA Magazine since 2018. She is also a plein air watercolor painter, and has visited many corners of Singapore to paint them on site. She is a member of the Urban Sketchers of Singapore




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AWA members are women who come from many countries and life experiences but they all have one thing in common — they have chosen to live in Singapore. Some members are new to Singapore,  while some have been here a long time or have returned to Singapore after time away. Our magazine - written and curated by AWA members - focuses on a diverse range of topics including wellness and family, travel tips, cultural events and information, and other helpful tips around navigating and experiencing life in Singapore to it's fullest. 

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