Monkey God to be reimagined in an international design competition organised by Chinatown shop

Madam Tan Chwee Lian, the matriarch of Say Tian Hng Buddha shop. PHOTO: JOSEPH NAIR
Madam Tan Chwee Lian with her family in their 124-year-old shop. PHOTO: NICKY LOH

SINGAPORE - If people can keep figurines of characters such as the Incredible Hulk in their office cubicles, why not the Taoist Monkey God?

That was the inspiration behind Design for Deities, an international design competition organised by Say Tian Hng Buddha Shop, a 124-year-old Taoist effigy-making shop in Chinatown. Originally located in Club Street in Chinatown, the shop moved to the nearby Neil Road in 1990.

The heritage business, one of the oldest in Singapore, has challenged designers all over the world to reimagine a 40-year-old wooden statue of the Monkey God made in the shop to appeal to an international and secular audience.

Mr Ng Tze Yong, 40, a fourth generation family member of the shop's founders, explains why they chose the Monkey God for the challenge.

"The Monkey God personifies the virtues of courage, devotion and redemption. You don't need to be a Taoist to appreciate the story of the Monkey God and the timeless values it embodies, which remain even more relevant in today's world," says Mr Ng, who is chief executive officer of Equal, an animal therapy charity.

The Design for Deities competition will be judged by renowned design and heritage practitioners from New York's Parsons School of Design, the Silicon Valley design firm IDEO, the Royal Anthropological Institute of the United Kingdom and the Singapore Heritage Society.

Local Buddhist temple Ean Keng Si has offered to sponsor the prize money, ranging from $200 to $1,500.

Mr Ng says the competition is an attempt to fight against time, by incorporating a modern flair to the age-old traditional sculptures.

Due to a dwindling Taoist population and availability of cheaper, machine-made statues from China, the shop's business has been steadily decreasing over the years. Its main customers now are mostly temples and Taoist devotees from Singapore, Malaysia and Batam, who come to repair their old statues.

Hand-carved wooden statues of the Monkey God in Say Tian Hng Buddha Shop. PHOTO: JOSEPH NAIR

"Only once in a blue moon do we get a customer who wants to commission a new statue," says Mr Ng, who is a father of two.

"The inspiration for the competition actually came from my final-year project at Parsons School of Design, which was to figure out how I could reinvent my grandma's shop for the future by reimagining the statues and attracting a new customer base," he adds.

He says the new customer base he has in mind will be made up of Westerners who may find it easier to see the reimagined sculptures as works of art rather than religious artefacts.

"Furthermore, memorable characters such as the Monkey God provide an accessible entry point into Chinese culture, helping Westerners develop an interest and appreciation for the rich culture."

He adds: "For many locals, it is culturally ingrained in us to see a Monkey God statue as purely an object of worship, and so it will be hard to accept or digest the idea that a Monkey God statue could be given a fresh look."

The hand-carved statue of the Taoist Monkey God is what designers have to refer to when creating their own interpretations of it. PHOTO: SAY TIAN HNG BUDDHA SHOP

All the sculptures in the shop are handmade by Mr Ng's 68-year-old father, Mr Ng Yeow Hua, although his grandmother, 89-year-old Madam Tan Chwee Lian, helps out a little.

The shop is where Madam Tan, whom Mr Ng describes as their family's matriarch, has spent most of her life. At the age of 18, she married Mr Ng Tze Yong's grandfather, Mr Ng Tian Sang, who was the son of the shop's original founders. She would help her husband with the business while taking care of her seven children.

Mr Ng says of his grandmother: "She is the epitome of a working mother. She would carve the wooden statues while rocking a baby on her lap."

Madam Tan is also on the judging panel for the competition.

Apart from the Monkey God, the best-selling statues in the shop are those of Guan Gong, the God of War, and Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy.

The Design for Deities competition will be accepting entries until Aug 9, and interested designers can submit their designs via this website.

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