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Father and son who design Singapore stamps

Eng Tze Ngan says seeing his father design stamps while growing up got him interested in the art form

In 2006, graphic designer Eng Tze Ngan designed a set of stamps featuring vanishing trades in Singapore.

After making several visits to the Chinatown Heritage Centre to do research and take photos, he created 10 colourful stamps depicting old tradesmen such as a clogmaker, traditional barber and snake charmer.

This remains his favourite set of stamp designs - perhaps because it has special resonance with him.

After all, his trade - stamp design - is not vanishing, but going a little out of fashion in an increasingly paperless world.

The 38-year-old bachelor, who works freelance with SingPost on the stamps, has designed nine stamp sets, including one for last year's SG50 celebrations.

His story mimicks the traditional tradesmen in another aspect: He is following in his father's footsteps.

Mr Eng Siak Loy, Singapore's longest-serving stamp designer, and his son Tze Ngan.
Mr Eng Siak Loy, Singapore's longest-serving stamp designer, and his son Tze Ngan. ST PHOTOS: NIVASH JOYVIN

His father is none other than Singapore's oldest and longest- serving stamp designer Eng Siak Loy, 75, who has been designing stamps since 1969. He has produced more than 50 stamp set designs.

Tze Ngan says his interest in stamps came from his father.

He says: "As a child, I saw him work so hard designing them and I marvelled at the final product.

"I came to appreciate the role that stamps play in tracing our nation's history - recording what is considered significant at the time - and I am proud to contribute as a stamp designer."

He runs a design studio, Newday Design, which handles graphic design, branding and other design work.

He admits that as the world goes digital, stamps have become less popular, together with snail mail in general.

Although SingPost produces 10 to 12 stamp issues a year - up from eight to 10 issues 10 years ago - some might assume that they are more likely to be collected than used.

Tze Ngan says: "As an artist, seeing my medium become less popular makes me sad. But even if fewer people see my work, I think stamps still play an important role in our nation."

He has two older siblings - a computer engineer brother and a sister who works in private banking.

His father says: "I'm proud of Tze Ngan for choosing to design stamps and pursue the arts.

"Getting one out of my three children into the arts is not bad, right?"

When his children were little, the elder Mr Eng conducted children's art classes in their home.

His children often sat in and quickly picked up impressive artistic skills. By the time the eldest was aged 10, the three siblings had garnered more than 100 art trophies and medals among them.

Tze Ngan, in particular, started painting when he was three years old and won many art competitions.

At the age of five, a poster drawing of his, of two children carrying a lantern, was selected by a local hotel to print on its Christmas and New Year greeting cards.

After he completed national service in 2000, the polytechnic graduate - with a diploma in visual communication - went into graphic design, but also started designing stamps on the side.

He says: "For me, stamp design is more of an interest than a career. I know it is impossible to feed yourself just by designing stamps."

Unlike his father, who used to design stamps without the help of a computer, Tze Ngan does only about 60 per cent of the work by hand, sometimes drawing images into a computer with a stylus and tablet. The rest is done using computer programs.

He says: "Technology allows me to complete the task faster because it lets me revise my drawings much more quickly.

"But there are certain effects that cannot be replicated on a computer, so I sometimes still do things manually."

Among his inspirations is local artist and Cultural Medallion recipient Lim Tze Peng, known for his Chinese ink paintings of old Singapore scenes.

But his first and primary inspiration is his father.

"I've watched him grow and evolve as an artist and it is a journey I want to take too."


The Engs on some of their designs

150th Anniversary Of Founding Of Singapore stamps (1969) By Eng Siak Loy and Han Kuan Cheng

This was the second stamp issue Mr Eng designed, after he was approached by a member of the Stamp Advisory Committee. It featured simple designs of the national flag and the island's shape, among other designs.

He says: "When it was first released, the whole set cost $18. Now, I believe that a good-quality first-day cover set can be worth more than $1,000."

Singapore: 50 Years Of Independence 1965-2015 stamp set (2015) By Eng Tze Ngan

To celebrate Singapore's Golden Jubilee, a series of three commemorative stamp sets were released yearly from 2013 to last year. This is the third and final set, featuring themes such as the National Day Parade, the country's education system, heritage and culture.

Mr Eng Tze Ngan says: "I felt very honoured to be chosen to design this set. SG50 was such a big event and I was glad to be able to give my little contribution to this celebration."


History of stamps in Singapore

The first stamps were used in Singapore in 1854, after they were introduced in Great Britain in 1840. These early stamps, which depicted a portrait of Queen Victoria, were issued by the British East India Company.

After Singapore achieved independence in 1965, the first stamps of the new nation were designed by the then Ministry of Culture, featuring a multiracial workforce, public housing and factories. These stamps were issued on Aug 9, 1966, to mark Singapore's first anniversary as a republic.

Generally, local stamps have featured the country's significant events as well as its history and heritage. Images featured on stamps have included the national flag, national flower, MRT trains as well as local landmarks such as the Cavenagh Bridge.

Images of local food, such as ice kacang, ang ku kueh and lapis sagu, have also been printed.

Denominations of local stamps are known to be as small as one cent and as large as $10.

Prominent personalities have been featured on stamps. The first Singaporean featured was Mr Yusof Ishak, Singapore's first president, whose image was printed on a $2 stamp in 1999.

Other local personalities include merchant and philanthropist Tan Tock Seng, intellectual Eunos Abdullah, businessman P. Govindasamy Pillai and lawmaker Edwin John Tessensohn, who were featured in a 2001 stamp set titled Early Singaporeans.

Some stamps came in unusual shapes, such as diamond and circular shapes. The longest stamps produced here were issued in 2011. These two stamps, each 16.2cm long, were part of a set issued by Singapore and Egypt, showing the Singapore River in one stamp and the Nile River in another.

The first glass-beaded stamp in the world was also issued here in 2008, to commemorate the opening of the Peranakan Museum in Armenian Street.

The most recent set of local stamps, titled Festivals, was issued on Oct 19 this year, and depicted patterns associated with various local holidays such as Christmas, Chinese New Year, Hari Raya Aidilfitri and Deepavali.

The rarest stamp cover at the Singapore Philatelic Museum dates back to 1854 and features all four values of Indian stamps used in the Straits Settlements. To preserve this stamp cover, the original is kept in storage to avoid prolonged exposure to light. A copy is on display.

The most expensive stamp sold at the museum's gift shop is a 1841 Penny Black stamp in its original wrapper, which is selling for $950. The cheapest postage stamps in the shop go for five cents each.

•Source: Singapore Philatelic Museum

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 30, 2016, with the headline 'Stamp of passion'. Print Edition | Subscribe