Signs of the times

Mr Yong Cheong Thye’s shop receives about 10 requests a year to make handcarved signboards.
Mr Yong Cheong Thye’s shop receives about 10 requests a year to make handcarved signboards. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

An exhibition traces the dying craft of making wooden signboards

The craft of making traditional wooden signboards will one day die out, says one man who has dedicated his life to it.

"Nowadays, not many appreciate these signboards," says Mr Yong Cheong Thye, 69, a woodcarver and calligrapher who owns the 35-year- old Yong Gallery in Chinatown.

"I'll keep going until I retire. None of my students is interested in taking over as most of them do it more as a hobby than a job."

An exhibition that traces the stories behind these old-fashioned signboards will be held at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa) from July 28 and Mr Yong will be the guest of honour at its opening.

A Nafa alumnus, he was the only person the team found who still makes handcarved signboards.

  • VIEW IT/PROJECT SIGNING OUT - THE LOST TRACE

    WHERE: Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Campus 1, Air Gallery Level 2, 80 Bencoolen Street

    WHEN: July 29 to Aug 5

    ADMISSION: Free

    INFO: www.facebook.com/projectsigningout? fref=ts

It took more than eight months for the team of three Nafa students and their lecturer to put together the exhibition, called Project Signing Out - The Lost Trace.

It comprises 21 photographs and an eight- minute documentary.

Mr Yong's partner at the gallery, Mr Cheh Kai Hon, 65, is a woodcarver who taught him to carve before they opened the shop together.

Mr Yong then combined his calligraphy and carving skills to make signboards. He has been in the trade for more than 30 years.

He says the difference between a handcarved and a machine-made signboard is the depth of the area that is cut.

"A signboard done by a machine is not beautiful. The words cut out are of even depth and thus lack texture and personality."

Handcarved signboards can take three times longer to make than the machine-cut variety and cost up to 10 times more.

Demand for such signboards, usually made of teakwood, is not high. The shop receives about 10 requests a year to make them. The signboards cost between $400 and $5,000.

But Mr Yong can at least count the project mentor of The Lost Trace, Ms Tan Ai Khim, as a fan of his work. It was her fascination with wooden signboards that led her to embark on this project.

The part-time design and media lecturer at Nafa says: "When I was a teenager, I used to walk past Joo Chiat near where I lived and I noticed such old signboards.

"I became very curious when I saw that many shops still hung up their old signboards, even though they displayed new, plastic ones at the front of the shop."

What started as a personal project for Ms Tan turned out to be "bigger than I thought".

She shared her idea of documenting this dying trade with her class and several of her students signed up to help her, even though it was outside of the school curriculum.

The SG50 committee, National Heritage Board and National Youth Council sponsored 75 per cent of the project's cost. The remaining amount came mostly from Ms Tan herself.

Aside from Mr Yong, the team found seven shopowners who still hung handmade signboards. These included bicycle shop Chin Hong Cycle in Joo Chiat Road and 50-year-old haberdashery shop Sin Hin Chuan Kee in North Bridge Road.

Sin Hin Chuan Kee director Adrian Ng, 41, says: "To us, the signboard stands for the values that my grandfather had - his perseverance and enterprise which led him to set up the shop."

The signboard still hangs inside the shop, where it is less exposed to the weather. The company spent nearly $1,000 to refurbish the shop in 1995 when it moved to its current premises.

"We will never throw away the traditional signboard. Even if our shop closes down one day, we will still keep it because it is our family heirloom," adds Mr Ng.

Mr Spencer Lam, 22, who produced the documentary for the exhibition, says he now sees these traditional signboards through new eyes.

The third-year screen media student at Nafa adds: "It's worth preserving such dying trades. The signboard is not just a signboard - it stands for history, stories, meaning, promises and culture."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 21, 2015, with the headline 'Signs of the times'. Print Edition | Subscribe