Sunday, April 16, 2017

Godmakers - Where Gods are born ( Say Tian Hng Buddha Shop)

The tagline of the facebook invite "Where Gods are born" was what attracted me to read more. It was an opportunity to visit an effigy shop in Singapore, which was probably the oldest and last surviving one in Singapore, Say Tian Hng Buddha Shop at No. 35 Neil Road. I signed up immediately as i never actually seen how deities were actually made. When the day of the tour arrived, we were greeted at the shop by Mr. Ng Tze Yong, a young gentleman and son of the current owner of the shop, Ng Yeow Hua. Ng Tze Yong does not operate the shop, but nevertheless was not only an eloquent speaker and spokesperson, he speaks with great passion on keeping the traditions of his family trade alive and relevant in today's changing world. The two people that are the artisans of this shop are that of his father, Ng Yeow Hua, (64 years old ) and his grandmother, Madam Tan Chwee Lian (87 years old) who have maintained the necessary skills to run the business till this very day.

Our guide and spokesperson for the family of Ng Artisans, Ng Tze Yong. 

History of Say Tian Hng

The origins of the effigy shop that we see today in 35 Neil Road Singapore can be traced back to 1897 with the arrival of two brothers from Kinmen. One of the brother stay in Singapore and set up shop at 19 Club Street that was called "Say Tian Kok" while the second went to Thailand to venture into a puppetry troupe. When the brother in Singapore passed away without a successor, the brother from Thailand came to Singapore to continue the business. After the death of the brother, the Club street shop was managed by one of his son, Ng Yew Kian (not to sure if i got the name correct) while another shop named "Say Tian Hng" was opened at No. 6 Genmill Lane, operated by another son, Ng Tian Sang. With government redevelopment of both Club Street and Genmill Lane in the late 1980's, the shops were acquired under the land acquisition act. The shop that was Genmill Lane  moved to No 35 Neil Road, where Say Tian Hng Buddha Shop operates till today.

Former shop at No 6 Genmill Lane. 

Ng Tian Sang at No 6 Genmill Lane
 (source: National Archives, Singapore)

Ng Yew Kian of Say Tian Kok at 19 Club Street
(source: National Archives Singapore) 

35 Neil Road (Say Tian Hng Buddha Shop) 

Today's visit, i learned that the effigies of the deities are still made in-house and the material used are Camphor wood (which is lighter and easier to carve especially for the finer details such as hands and fingers ) and in other cases, Teak wood. (a hard wood) From the block of wood, the tracing works and finally carving will take place, done by the artisan after consulting the almanac on the right "auspicious" day to start.

Ng Tze Yong showing us the Teak (left) Camphor(right) wood

Artisan carving on the block of wood
(source: National Archives of Singapore) 

After the carving process is completed, the delicate process of "threading" takes place and beautiful intricate designs of dragons and other symbolic motifs (examples of prosperity, authority) are threaded by hand using dough (in the past this dough would have been made from the of ashes of joss sticks (in the past). This was for the past 70 years done by Madam Tan Chwee Lian, the matriarch of the Ng artisans. At 87 years of age, Madam Tan makes fast work of the spreading of the dough to fine strips using a marble stone and a wooden paddle (the same one she has been using since she started learning the trade after marrying into the family. Although she claims her eyesight is not as good as it was, you can see the she is very much an expert artisan who takes pride in her work and her eyes brighten up when we complimented her of her art pieces.

Madam Tan Chwee Lian with steady hands, threading the dough so that it
sticks to the surface of the wood to form the motifs. 

Madam Tan focusing on the threading. In front of her is the
marble stone and wooden paddle she uses 

A sprightly Madam Tan Chwee Lian warming up to us !

The owner of the shop, Ng Yeow Hua goes about quickly and quietly with his works but he is paying close attention to the talk taking place in his shop and answers quickly whenever his son, Tze Yong ask for any clarifications. He was busy painting the effigy and after the crowd as left, switched off the fan and started peeling gold paper to paste on the effigy. This gold paper cost roughly $1 per small piece and requires skillful handling to peel it without the ends sticking to each other. The gold paper are purchased from Thailand.

Mr. Ng Yeow Hua painting the effigy 

Effigy of Fa Zhu Gong being painted 

Sticking the gold paper on the effigy 

The birth of a Deity

Once completed, the effigy is still an effigy. The consecration ritual takes place only after a Taoist Priest or a Tang-kee ( a spiritual medium) blesses the effigy thus turning it to a deity. The process usually involves taking the blood from the cockscomb (or crest) of a white hen and dabbing it onto the eyes, ears and limbs of the effigy.  The white hen symbolises purity, blood, live and the cockscomb, supremacy.

Godmakers - the artisans and who the effigy represents

Ng Tze Yong was a very eloquent story teller, sharing with us the stories about what deities the effigy represents that are made in the shop. He gave personal insights about his family especially the stories about his grandmother bringing up the family and supporting the business at the same time. This were stories that inspired me and are indeed stories of the early pioneers of modern Singapore that made Singapore successful and prosperous. Finally, Tze Yong shared with me his aspirations on sharing this cultural heritage beyond the family itself. The effigies are indeed intangible cultural heritage and artisans such as Madam Tan Chwee Lian and Ng Yeow Hua, living cultural assets that skills need to be documented and their skills and knowledge passed on to the next generation of artisans.

I admire Tze Yong for working hard to make this craft that is perceived to be dying in Singapore by firstly sharing it through such talks and coming up with plans to inject new life into it and even transforming it by incorporating it to modern artworks. The artisans need not be effigy markers of Taoist and Buddhist statutes but could also be modern wood sculptures incorporating this age old traditional methods used by the Ng family. I hope his ideas work and take shape. To me that will be something that his parents, grandparents, his great grandparents can be proud of !

In my next article i will share more about my experience  and photos from today's talk, which includes the artisans themselves and the deities that the effigy represents.

Ng family and today's visitors 


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


Singapore-Image Carver. (Photographs).National Archives of Singapore
Singapore-Shop. (Photographs).National Archives of Singapore
"Can survive, la" : cottage industries in high-rise Singapore / Margaret Sullivan ; photographs Henry Wong, Michael Neo.


dazzakoh said...

Your chatty manner always makes for good reading, even for something as serious as the last effigy shop in Singapore!

Daryl said...

awesome write out of the last bastions of statue making. sorry to bother but your description of the Photos "Effigy of nezha Being Painted" is actually another deity called "Fa Zhu Kong"......

Rojak Librarian said...

@Daryl: thank you for your kind words.. Amnended and thank you for correcting me.

Rojak Librarian said...

@Dazzakoh : thanks for your kind words.