Learn about tools used by Singapore pioneers at boutique museum

Tools used by samsui women on show at A Living Heritage Museum.
Tools used by samsui women on show at A Living Heritage Museum.PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

A travelling heritage exhibition showcasing the tools used by Singapore's pioneers has found a permanent home in Little India.

The exhibition, titled The Tools That Built Singapore, popped up at various public venues for seven months last year, wrapping up in November.

It is now housed at the two-month-old A Living Heritage Museum on Perak Road.

On display are more than 300 tools used in Singapore from the 1940s to 1960s. The instruments are grouped according to 21 trades and displayed in sealed, transparent cases.

All the tools are from the personal collection of civil servant Winston Wong, an ardent gatherer of things he considers to have historic value - be it a rusty cargo hook used by labourers or a feather plucker homemakers once used on poultry bought from the wet markets.

The 112 sq m private museum, which occupies the ground floor of a two-storey shophouse, is opened by him and three long-time friends who are all from the pioneer generation.


  • WHERE: 27 Perak Road

    WHEN: 9.30am to 5.30pm, Tuesday to Sunday. Monday is by appointment only

    ADMISSION: $9 for adults, $7 for full-time national servicemen and senior citizens aged 55 and older, $6 for children aged six to 16. Children younger than six enter for free

    INFO: Call 6297-1727 or go to www.toolsmuseum.com. Bookings must be made two days in advance for groups

Mr Wong, 69, who started collecting the tools at the age of 13, says: "The tools reflect the sheer grit of people back when jobs were very manual in nature. People worked hard to earn a living and learning to use a tool meant they had skills to work in a certain profession."

After the exhibition's run, he and his friends decided that the items should not be relegated to a storage space, but put on show for their educational and heritage value.

Mr Vijaya Raghavan, 69, also saw the collection as an opportunity to "convert idle assets into a revenue stream".

Pumping in $65,000, they opened the boutique museum within a heritage district to reach out to students, tourists, community organisations and locals. Entry costs between $6 and $9 a person.

Mr Wong is the curator consultant while Mr Raghavan is one of three directors of Team Friday, the company they started to run the museum.

Each exhibit is accompanied by an illustration by Mr Wong to paint a picture of the setting for each trade. To explain how the tools were used, the museum's centre manager will give tours. If there is a big group, part-time guides will come in to help.

One of the tools displayed, and now rendered obsolete, is a bicycle oil lamp, a vital instrument for cyclists returning home from work when night fell. The tool is in an exhibit dedicated to the bicycle repairman trade.

In another panel focusing on the fisherman - a profession many men took up when Singapore was still dotted with kampungs - 11 tools such as a cylindrical fish trap and flimsy-looking fishing rod made out of bamboo are on show.

There is also a tribute to the hardworking samsui women. In a panel of more than 20 tools, such as a nail hammer and pulley, the laborious nature of their job is brought to light.

Most of the tools on display are still in use, but now come in fancier, modernised versions, says Mr Rag- havan, explaining the use of the term "living" in the museum's name.

"During those times, though, if you knew how to work a screwdriver or fuse, it meant a world of difference to your life," he adds.

Mr Wong will also add new exhibits of other professions such as the sundry farmer and draughtsman.

Visitors can also don a samsui woman's uniform or trishaw man's straw hat and take photos on a trishaw. Tour groups will also get a taste of the past, courtesy of an on-site ice ball machine.

There are plans to introduce more interactive exhibits too, says Mr Raghavan, such as a re-creation of an unloading dock area where labourers carried heavy sacks of commodities from boats.

He says: "The museum is a trip down memory lane for the pioneers, while the young get to learn about how their elders used to work and how tools have changed their lives."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2016, with the headline 'Learn about tools used by Singapore pioneers at boutique museum'. Print Edition | Subscribe