New book tells the story of traditional artisans in Jalan Besar

The disappearing precision art of metal lathing and other trades of craftsmen are captured in a book

The owner of Hup Yick Engineering Works thought of shutting his business a few years ago because of slow sales and the lack of a successor.

It is a sad story, but a familiar one for sunset businesses.

If Hup Yick, located in Jalan Besar along a strip of ageing metalwork workshops, closed, its manual metalwork machinery, some more than 100 years old, would have been sold for scrap if no one bought them. The technical expertise of its owner, Mr Yee Chin Hoon, 69, would have disappeared.

But, thankfully, there is a twist to this tale. Enter the designer.

For the past two years, three young designers have tapped Mr Yee's skills and used his specialised metalwork equipment to create artisanal products such as jewellery, chess sets and vases.

And now, they have put out a book called The Machinist, largely dedicated to the life and times of Mr Yee, a second-generation machinist.

His father, Mr Yee Sun Yin, started the business in a back alley in the Bugis area just after World War II and later moved the shop to its current premises in the 1950s.

More than half of the 306-page book covers the history of his workshop, while the rest is dedicated to other car and ship parts dealers and artisans in the neighbourhood. There are also sectional drawings of their work spaces and offices.

Also included are photographs that capture the behind-the-scenes look of these gritty workshops and their tools.

Mr Yee's workshop, for example, has a stamping machine to cut circles out from large metal sheets or press metal rods into U-shaped bolts.

The three designers behind this project are industrial designer Wendy Chua, 32, artist Xin Xiaochang, 34, and jewellery designer Yuki Mitsuyasu, 34.

All three are also lecturers at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

The book, which has a print run of 1,000 copies, is self-published with help from the National Heritage Board.

After working with Mr Yee on their products, they wanted to tell his personal story and document the precision art of metal lathing, which is fast disappearing.

Metal lathing makes shapes out of solid metal. These days, lathing is done by computer numerical control, without a manual operator.

Mr Yee has spent more than 50 years working with lathe, milling and stamping machines since he first worked for his father as an apprentice at 16.

But he has not been able to find an apprentice. His two daughters live abroad and have no interest in the business.

Ms Chua, who is a co-founder of design practice Forest & Whale, says: "He's a hardy man who wants his business to carry on. But that's not possible if no one takes over.

"Writing a book is a big commitment, but we felt we had to tell his story and celebrate his craft."

The designer collaborations and a book have given the shop a second wind.

"Not many people have books written about them," Mr Yee says. "At least when I'm gone, the book will be a reminder of what I did."

•The Machinist costs $45 and can be bought at themachinist.sg or Hup Yick Engineering Works at 84 Horne Road. Those who buy a copy this weekend at the public book launch from 10am to 5pm will be invited to visit Mr Yee's workshop .


Supplying both vintage and current car parts

Owners of classic Volkswagen Beetles know that the best place to find spare parts for their vintage rides is at Xinzhong Autoparts in Tyrwhitt Road, off Jalan Besar.

The owner of the business, Mr Yap Swee Kee, 80, has a good collection of second-hand parts salvaged from the scrapyard, the oldest of which belong to a 50-year- old Beetle.

Set up in 1987, his business covers a niche market that many local car dealers stay out of because there are not many Beetle aficionados in Singapore. Mr Yap estimates there are between 100 and 200 of the classic cars on the roads here.

Besides Singapore, the shop gets a steady stream of orders from around the region, from countries such as Brunei, Malaysia and Sri Lanka.

He operates the Beetle spare-parts dealership mainly out of the second floor of a five-storey building he owns, with boxes labelled with car model numbers and serial numbers of parts.

The third and fourth floors are for storing new spare parts for models of Volkswagen and Audi cars that use a water-cooled engine. That part of the company is run by his son, Jeffrey, 41.

The older Mr Yap is a second-generation spare-parts dealer, having learnt the trade from his father, who opened a dealership in Lavender Street with other partners.

He recalls cycling between the shop and Orchard Road, which was once a thriving area for car dealerships and agents, to make deliveries.

The older Mr Yap also has a daughter, who used to work for a local telco, but is now a housewife.

He had planned to retire and sell the business when he got old.

In 2002, Jeffrey finished his contract as a technician with the Singapore Air Force and started to help out in the family business.

Jeffrey, who is married and has two children aged 12 and seven, says: "My mother persuaded me to give it a try. I spent a few months with my dad to see how the business is run. It's not a glamorous job, but I saw it had potential to go on."

He then took over the business of servicing European-made cars and leaves the vintage car-parts trade to his father.

"He knows where everything is," Jeffrey says. "He has a system all mapped out in his mind."


Car spare-parts maker still holding out for an apprentice

Like many car spare-parts makers, Hup Yick Engineering Works has seen better days.

In the 1970s and 1980s, during the car industry boom, the business thrived. It received orders for spare parts for car models such as the Morris Minor and Austin Cambridge A50, Singapore's first taxi.

Over the years, as more cars were sent to the scrapyard instead of being repaired, the demand for washers, door springs and clutch rods fell.

Where there used to be the constant sounds of loud chugging machines stamping metal sheets and the whirr of aluminium rods being shaved, Hup Yick grew quieter from the noughties onwards.

The current owner is Mr Yee Chin Hoon, 69, who had worked in his father's workshop since he was 16 and later inherited the business.

Started in the post-war era, the first shop was set up in the nowdefunct Hainan Street in Bugis before it moved to Jalan Besar.

In recent years, with falling receipts and no successor in sight, Mr Yee was prepared to close his business and retire with his wife, who works with him. His two daughters live overseas and are not likely to take over the workshop.

That was until industrial designer Wendy Chua, 32, approached him to make some copper vases for a design project.

Although he had not worked with designers before, he took on the challenge and that project kickstarted a designer-maker relationship between the two. Their next collaboration was a jewellery series in 2015.

During this period, Singaporean artist Xin Xiaochang, 34, and Japanese jewellery designer Yuki Mitsuyasu, 34, who is a permanent resident here, also came on board to see what they could make from the spare parts in the workshop.

The three designers spent two weeks doing sketches and getting Mr Yee to create the prototypes. At times, he offered them suggestions on how to change the designs to make production easier.

They also zeroed in on offcuts he had meant to throw away, fashioning metal shavings into ribbon lapels and turning a brass double- pitched stud into a pendant.

Besides jewellery, Ms Chua has commissioned Mr Yee to make other products such as a brass Chinese chess set and an incense holder, which were designed under her design practice Forest & Whale, which she co-founded.

The items are sold at retail shop Scene Shang in Beach Road.

The designers do not get to operate any machinery, though. Mr Yee does not allow anyone to touch his equipment, including a huge stamping machine which is more than 100 years old and is used to make water jackets.

He says: "I've been the only worker here for a long time, so I decide what to do. That's the way I work."

But he has grown fond of the three women who visit so regularly that they know the workings of his workshop.

When a customer comes in looking for a spare part, they know where to hunt among the lacquered biscuit tins that are stacked high on the shelves and labelled according to car models. The greased containers, lined with newspapers, hold thousands of spare parts for various cars.

Mr Yee is still hoping that someone will be interested to take up an apprenticeship with him to learn the ropes so that Hup Yick will carry on. But with no takers, it is likely that he will retire soon.

With a tinge of sadness, he says: "It's hard manual work that most people won't want to do. I can't do anything about it, but I can't bear to leave it."


Artist, carpenter and sculptor rolled into one

No ordinary carpentry shop, 30- year-old Wayman Enterprise in Jalan Besar specialises in making props.

It has made decorative animal zodiac statues for temples, installed mini kampung or kopitiam sets for a primary school and created other props for movies and advertisements.

Its owner is also quite the personality. Chief artist, carpenter and sculptor, Mr Phua Siow Kiat, 65, is nicknamed Jackie Chan in the neighbourhood because his big nose and tough physique make him resemble the Hong Kong action superstar.

Often clad in a black singlet, he can be found hoisting huge pieces of wood around his workshop in Cavan Road, carving sculptures out of foam or assembling larger installations on the road outside.

Trained in metal- and woodworking, he set up Wayman in 1987, making wooden jewellery display stands for retailers until 2000, when he decided to take a break.

"The economy was bad and I just didn't feel like making display stands anymore. So I spent a year roaming around and wasting time."

After the hiatus, a friend asked him to build an archway for Tua Pek Kong Temple in Loyang Way for Chinese New Year.

He had never attempted something like that and so spent a few days figuring out "how to build it and make it stand".

The result was a decorative arch - almost 11/2 storeys high - that fronted the temple's entrance. It was adorned with lanterns, lights, wood carvings and auspicious Chinese characters.

After that project, more jobs started coming in and he continued experimenting with different made-to-order sets and props.

His reputation as a creative carpenter grew gradually and he had a steady stream of work commissioned by different organisations.

Every year, he still makes celebratory arches and animal zodiac sculptures for the Loyang Tua Pek Kong Temple during Chinese New Year, or long bridges and installations for other religious events.

He also makes sets for films and advertising shoots.

For home-grown film-maker Boo Junfeng's Apprentice (2016), a psychological prison drama, he designed and made the trap door through which prisoners fall when they are hanged, as well as the corridors which the death row prisoners walk down.

He entered the trade by accident. Having failed his Primary 6 exams twice, he switched to a vocational school near Tanglin Halt.

There, he learnt a range of skills, such as metal- and woodworking, arts and crafts and doing technical drawings.

After completing his national service, he went into business with a friend, offering a laminated photo service. The prints were tacked onto a wooden base and sealed in resin. He left that business two years later and got into the jewellery stand business.

Now, his workshop is chock- a-block with paints, drills, cutters, wood and foam.

Scattered around are old works such as gold ingots made from foam, altars as well as smaller-scale sculptures of goddesses and a horse.

At the back of the workshop, there is a serene and green spot where he has built a fish pond. In the centre of it is a spiral staircase leading to the upper floors of the shophouse unit. Lush creepers grow on the pond's wall.

Mr Phua, who has two sons, does not know when he is going to retire.

Work is a "form of exercise", he says. "I don't need the gym."

He runs Wayman by himself, though he has help from part-timers for bigger projects.

As for taking on an apprentice, he says: "I'm ready to teach someone who wants to learn, but it's hard work. Can he do it?"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 22, 2017, with the headline 'Capturing a machinist's mettle'. Print Edition | Subscribe