Old hand at traditional games but still game to carve new niche

Maker of traditional games aims to interest younger generation in them

It is a game that requires dexterity and skill - and no, it is not Angry Birds. Instead of tapping away on an iPad, you just need some marbles.

First, place a few marbles in a circle drawn on the ground.

Next, stand behind a line several metres away, and assume the gaming stance: Back hunched, arm flexed, another marble wedged between the thumb and index finger.

Then aim for the circle of glass, and fire. Every marble knocked out is a victory and yours to keep.

The traditional game of go li (marble) may sound simple, but it entertained entire generations in 1960s and 1970s Singapore - long before the advent of the smartphone.

Traditional gamemaker Seow Cheng Whee, 64, is fighting to keep such games alive for today's children to enjoy.

"It is good for children to play such games - it makes them move their eyes, hands and legs, so it's healthier, better than staring at the computer," he told The Straits Times, in Mandarin.

To help him reach out to the younger generation, his friend's son set up a Facebook page - Kampong Wonderland - to promote Mr Seow's partyware business.

Postgraduate student Wilson Ang, 32, who set up the page this month, said: "I think what he does is really cool and, given that we're celebrating SG50 this year, it is a good opportunity for... anyone who wants to rent these simple games to reminisce about the good old days."

Mr Seow's business - Mareara Trading - has been around for more than three decades.

He was trained in woodcraft at the age of 12, when he joined a workshop in Tanglin after leaving Ai Tong School in the 1960s.

With his background in woodcraft, and having grown up playing traditional games himself, Mr Seow decided to make his own.

A few years later, he set up his first shop in Outram Park.

He has had to move three times since, when buildings made way for development, and his current shop at Block 163, Bukit Merah Central, is his fourth.

Over the years, he has carved 30 game sets - including colourful dartboards, a pinball machine and a tic-tac-toe concept game where players throw spongy balls into four adjacent holes to win.

Each took about two to three months.

He had to carve the wood and plane it to ensure it would not scratch the players' hands. Adjustments had to be made to ensure the holes were spaced evenly and the incline of slopes was sufficient to get a ball, or toy car, rolling smoothly.

Mr Seow now rents out the games for $20 a week. And after each rental, he spends about an hour cleaning them.

"Since they are made of wood, mould will sometimes grow on them. I need to disinfect them," said Mr Seow, whose business is a one-man show that runs seven days a week.

But technology has dulled the appeal of nostalgia.

Mr Seow, who is married to housewife Lau Lee Lian, 62, has an 18-year-old daughter, Hui Fang, a polytechnic student.

He has seen takings fall dramatically. From a monthly high of more than $10,000 in the 1970s, the family's sole breadwinner is now barely scraping by.

Some months he earns nothing, and has to dip into his savings to cover his $1,800 rent.

"What am I to do? Times have changed," he said.

"In the past, pasar malam (night markets) used to have 20 to 30 game stalls. Now, they have only food stalls."

His main customers are grassroots organisations such as residents' committees and welfare groups which rent the games for carnivals and celebrations.

Mr Seow has tried to stay relevant by making changes to the game sets. Some of them are decorated with stickers depicting popular cartoon characters such as Hello Kitty and Angry Birds.

New elements have been introduced in others, to make it easier for children to play with. For instance, a miniature hockey stick is his modern twist on go li. Instead of having players throw a marble to dislodge another, Mr Seow gets players to "shoot" the first ball with a hockey stick.

He said this would allow children who do not have enough finger strength to play the game.

"People in my generation grew up playing these games - they (the games) are competitive, and can be used to challenge each other. Children today should experience it too - nowadays, they hardly move around!"

audreyt@sph.com.sg