Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Godmakers - The Artisans and the Effigies (Say Tian Hng Buddha Shop)

The story of Say Tian Hng Buddha Shop is the story of the reality and issues facing many traditional trades in Singapore :- remaining relevant and of course profitable; succession and continuity; and finally of adaptation and yet keeping to tradition. I am lucky to have joined this tour by Ng Tze Yong to witness firsthand, the two artisans maintaining the craftsmanship of being "Godmakers", his father, Ng Yeow Hua, (64 years old ) and his grandmother, Madam Tan Chwee Lian (87 years old). 

Effigy and who it represents

There are many effigies in the shop in various phases of construction and it can be a confusing sight especially if you are not a Taoist or Buddhist and do not have background of the stories of the Gods or Deities it represent. I draw parallel experience to the beautiful and intricate stone carvings that i often see in Bukit Brown Cemetery that i still often struggle in identifying. In the case of the effigies, i am fortunate to have Tze Yong, who brought this stories to live in a manner that is very easy to understand and educated us to also look out key things such as the posture of the effigy, the clothing, the various tools such as weapons added on and creatures that are carved and added on together with the effigy as part of the recognition process.

Nezha (哪吒)
Nezha was a son of a military commander, Li Jing and at birth came out as a ball of flesh. When cut opened, Nezha came out as full grown boy with ability to speak, walk and possessed great powers. Nezha got into trouble after killing the 3rd son of the Sea Dragon King who then threaten to flood humankind. Nezha realising what he did, selflessly committed suicide by carving out his skin and flesh and removing his bones and returning it to his parents. After his death, Nezha visited his mother in spirit who granted his wish of building a temple so that his soul may find comfort. The temple grew in reputation of one that is able to grant miracle cures. However his father found out and set the temple ablaze. Nezha was who was angered by this, resurrected and equipped with Wind Fire Wheels  (風火輪) and Fire-tipped Spear  (火尖槍), battled his father. It was only after celestial intervention that they finally reconciled.

The effigy of Nezha can be represented in its child-like form or the form where it is ready for battle. It is often seen with Wind Fire Wheels, Fire-tipped Spear and in the picture below you can see it battling a Sea Dragon. Nezha is seen to be like a Patron Deity for Drivers and also Gamblers. The story of Nezha can also be found on the tomb panels in Bukit Brown, the example below from the tomb of Mr and Mrs. Lim Peng Chin.


Nezha fighting his father, Li Jing on a Bukit Brown tomb panel 

Xuanwu (玄武 ) 
Xuanwu (玄武 ), also known as the Dark Warrior was said to be butcher who had killed many animals without flinching an eye. As the years went, he felt a huge remorse and decided to give up this profession. One day, he assisted a woman in labor and later washed the blood stains in a nearby river. He felt that to really cleanse himself of his sins, he dug out his stomach and intestines and washed them in the river. In the process he lost both. The Jade Emperor was moved by Xuanwu sincerity and made him an immortal. This was not the end of the story, the stomach and intestines that was lost in the river turned into a demonic turtle and demonic snake and started causing chaos in the world and it was only Xuanwu that eventually subdued them and used them as his means of transport. Hence, you will often see Xuanwu seated with barefeet on a turtle and snake. Xuanwu is often seen as the Patron Deity for Martial Arts.


Guan Yu (关羽) / Guan Gong (Lord Guan 关公)
Portrayed as having a red face, he was said to be fugitive on constant run until the day he joined a militia that was formed to bring unity and stability to a China facing turmoil and power mongering. That militia was formed by Liu Bei. Later, Guan Yu, Liu Bei and Zhang Fei become sworn brothers and their bond of loyalty was stuff of legends often featured in the various media popularly known as "Romance of the Three Kingdoms". Guan Yu is known as the God of Literature and God of War. However this is not to be mistaken to be in the same context of Ares or Mars. In fact Guan Gong involvement in this case is for justice and not those who fight for blood lust. That been said, he is often seen as the Patron Deity in Hong Kong Police stations as well as for the Triads in Hong Kong. Guan Gong is also the Patron Deity for Traders, to scare away evil spirits.

In Bukit Brown, the panel of Teo Chin Chay's tomb shows the story of a Guan Yu, being treated after being wounded by a poison arrow. While the physician was scrapping the poison of from the flesh and bone, Guan Yu is seen to be calmly playing Chinese Chess to distract himself from the pain without any local anesthetic.

Guan Yu (关羽) / Guan Gong (Lord Guan 关公) 

Guan Yu been treated by a physician after being struck by a poison arrow.

Monkey God / Sun Wukong 
There are many stories on this mythological monkey who came to possessed a weapon such as an 8,000 kg rod that can be shrink to the size of a needle and whose great fighting skills include those that allows himself to be cloned using his hair, transform into other beings and to travel great distances by doing somersault. His power and quest for recognition as a powerful God led to many battles against the Jade Emperor and the heavenly army. The rebellion against the Heavens was finally "squashed" literally with the intervention of Buddha trapping Monkey God under a mountain which became his prison for 500 years.

Guanyin (观音 ) in search of a bodyguard to protect a monk (Tang Seng) whose mission is to make a Journey to the West to retrieve Buddhist sutras. Long story short, Monkey King did a good job in overcoming all the tribulations that came their way and thus eventually atoning for his sins and was freed.

In Chua Soon Leong's tomb in Greater Bukit Brown, the Journey of the West panel portrays this story.

Effigies of Monkey King /Sun Wukang 

Journey to the West stone panel of Chua Soon Leong's tomb 

From wood to Gods 

"Godmakers" - The Artisans 

The story of the Say Tian Hng Buddha Shop is not just the story about the effigy of deities and Gods been meticulously carved, threaded and painted. It is the story of the early Singapore Chinese Pioneers who settled in Singapore and grew roots as well. The story of artisans such as Madam Tan Chwee Lian and his son, Ng Yeow Hua was also kindly shared and that made the tour experience much more personal and we got more intimate with them and their aspirations for their future.

Photo of the Ng family
Madam Tan Chwee Lian, 87 years of age went about her work calmly despite the fuss going about her shop and camera lenses and camera shutter sounds intruding into her workspace. She seemed initially shy, but so wrong was i as after warming up to us, she shared with us not only the work she does but also proudly showed to us some of effigies she hand crafted or threaded herself. Her's is a story of a hardworking woman, like many during her generation, bringing up a family of 7 children, ensuring that they received a proper education and with the resources and skill she had sew the clothes that you seem them wearing. It is a story of love and loyalty to her husband and lifelong partner too, learning from ground zero the skills needed to support the family business as well.

There was never a sense of pressure to force any of their children to take over their business, however her eldest son, Ng Yeow Hua (64 years old) now is the main artisan for the business.

Wedding picture of Madam Tan Chwee Lian 70 years ago

Ng Yeow Hua at work 

Ng siblings and grandson, Ng Tze Chong  

Family photos of the Ng artisans at work

The Future for Say Tian Hng? 

Is there a future for such a traditional craft in Singapore and will there be the next generation of Ng artisans to continue the business? I wish i have an answer but personally it is going to be huge challenge. That been said, i sense hope and more importantly this hope is acted upon via the public tours organised by Ng Tze Yong and supported 100% by his family. I also sense his urgency and drive to share, educate and preserve this intangible cultural heritage. Tze Yong has taken very important steps to open the doors to strangers to peek into their personal life's. He has plans to invite interested artisans from other disciplines to step up and learn the skills that are kept in the family business for many generations and to evolve it to make it relevant for future generations to come. Maybe there is also another potential business model in this too.

See previous article: Godmakers-Where Gods are born (Say Tian Hng Buddha Shop).


Say Tian Hng Buddha Shop
35 Neil Road Singapore 088821
Mr, Ng Yeow Hua
Tel: 62211042  Handphone: 96607357

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