81-year-old keeps sculptures in good shape

Mr Teo Veoh Seng, 76, painting a figurine at Haw Par Villa. ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

For the past 68 years, Mr Teo Veoh Seng has maintained Haw Par Villa's 1,000-odd surreal sculptures.

Mr Teo, who has been a painter there since he was 13, is the last of six artisans working on the park's statues after the rest retired.

Armed with a paint brush, chisel and scraper, the 81-year-old nimbly climbs scaffolds to reach the larger-than-life statues that dot the sprawling park.

Mr Teo was trained by a master craftsman who had worked at Haw Par Villa's sister park, the now defunct Hong Kong Tiger Balm Garden.

His work never ends as the sculptures' exposure to the elements results in deterioration and the need for constant restoration.

Mr Teo said he has tried to recruit apprentices, but to no avail. Speaking in Teochew, he said: "They don't stay long because they are put off by the elements."

The father of seven is not looking to retire despite his age and still clocks nine-to-five hours five days a week.

He said he likes every part of the park, and is unfazed about having to work on topless mermaids or gruesome scenes of torture in sections such as the 10 Courts of Hell.

Mr Teo's family, including his father and uncles, used to work for the park's owner - ointment tycoon Aw Boon Haw. They were responsible for the general maintenance and cleanliness of the park.

Mr Teo initially sold drinks at the park before he was picked by Mr Aw to become a painter.

He said his extended family used to live in two zinc-roofed houses behind the park.

He recounted to The Sunday Times how the Japanese army took over the place during World War II and threatened to execute people who breached its boundaries.

He said the army used it as a look-out post because of its vantage point facing the sea.

On the imminent changes to the park now that it is in the hands of a new operator, Mr Teo said: "I'm just a worker here and I will work here until I can no longer do so."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 27, 2015, with the headline 81-year-old keeps sculptures in good shape. Subscribe