The air in the Wah King Furniture workshop is a mix of sawdust, varnish and sweat. Craftsmen, in singlets white as their hair, are engrossed in hammering and painting, restoring pieces bound for homes, or even cafes where avocado toast might be served.
Mr Du Wah King, 81, strides through the two-storey factory barefoot, oblivious to splinters and spare parts littering the floor. He is the boss. But you would not know it watching him gracefully weave between machinery and men, leafing through invoices for pending orders.
The master carpenter began his journey as a teen-age apprentice to his father in the 1950s, in Shanghai, China, making furniture. When he reached his 30s, in the 1970s, he moved his family from Shanghai to Hong Kong; and after a few years, they migrated to Singapore, where he established Wah King Furniture.
Today, the elder Du personally handles jobs for customers needing to repair old furniture, or custom-make new pieces. Sales and marketing, the front-end part of the family business, are managed by his son, Kenneth.
Through the lens of the younger Du, Wah King Furniture has the potential to grow its reputation for quality workmanship. The 35-year-old hopes to re-introduce traditional methods to the millennial audience.
In fact, the youngest of three siblings was always enamoured of workshop processes. Like his father, his childhood was spent among carpenters, learning. “I followed my parents around. My father did the woodwork and my mother did varnishing. As my dad is more shy and reserved, I learnt by observing him quietly.”
He joined his parents at 20, after he completed National Service, passing up the chance to start a car repair business with a buddy. “After all, restoring vintage furniture has become my passion as well. To me, our family brand has sentimental value. It would be a pity to see it go down the drain.”
Both Dus are proud of their legacy and the longevity of their trade. If there is a secret formula, to the elder Mr Du, it is just to be good as your word. He says in Mandarin: “When a customer places an order, we honour it.”
Not just preserving furniture, but preserving memories
Delivering on what sounds simple is, in today’s climate, extremely difficult. Manpower shortage and higher supply costs are perennial worries. But what sets the Dus apart from other operations is a devotion to traditional carpentry techniques — no shortcuts.
Three years ago, a customer approached Mr Kenneth Du with a set of furniture made from teak and formica: a queen-size bed frame and side drawers, a two-door wardrobe, as well as a dressing table. The 40-year-old ensemble, an heirloom from her great grandparents, needed replacement parts that were no longer available.
Wah King’s master craftsmen did their finest work, taking nearly a month to complete their detailing. The effort was worth it. When the restored pieces were presented to her, the customer began to cry. At that point, said Kenneth: “It was clear to me that furniture is more than function. And we want to help customers -- with our traditional carpentry methods -- to restore furniture that has sentimental value.”
Kenneth notes that antique furniture or pieces made in the vintage-style symbolise simpler times, and have become the hallmark of retro-chic interiors that evoke a sense of nostalgia.
He hopes to build on this demand, and believes the digital age can be kind to age-old businesses like Wah King’s. He keeps pace with current home décor trends, constantly plugged into social media platforms like Instagram and interior design blogs for inspiration. “I find ways to integrate old and new methods of carpentry,” he says.
Staying true to their roots
Stayers like them can stand out among the far fewer local carpenters and suppliers on the scene today, he reckons. Besides, “there will always be a demand for good quality furniture”.
He stays in touch with his clients on Facebook, conducts consultations at their homes, and recommends creative ways to highlight talking-point pieces. He also consigns Wah King’s work to trendy vintage retailers such as Hock Siong & Co.
Both Dus have one thing in common: a determination to retain Wah King’s commitment to its values. Whether that expression takes the form of craftsmanship or business savvy, it remains rooted in a family promise to deliver quality, whatever changes happen around it.
This story is brought to you by the Singapore Tourism Board.