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Family runs effigy making workshops to promote a part of Singapore’s cultural heritage

Family runs workshops to promote a part of S'pore's cultural heritage

Nestled among a row of mostly bars in Neil Road sits an old shop, and one steeped in history.

Unlike other establishments with their bright lights and neon signs, a wooden signboard embossed with three gold-painted Chinese characters displays its name.

Probably unknown to many, Say Tian Hng Buddha Shop is the last surviving effigy shop in Singapore.

Inside, statues of the various Taoist deities are displayed on floor-to-ceiling shelves.

Madam Tan Chwee Lian, 87, runs the shop with her son, Mr Ng Yeow Hua, 65, the second of her seven children.

Married at 18 and now a great-grandmother, the soft-spoken octogenarian learnt how to make the mythological figures from her late husband. He himself had honed his skills by watching his father, who started the business in 1896.

The painstaking art of effigy-making starts with a wood block which is first carved into the likeness of a certain deity. The sculpture is then hand-painted and emblazoned with different symbolic motifs using bamboo brushes and a special type of dough. The whole process takes about a month to complete.

With cheaper, mass-produced statues of the deities flooding the market, the shop is joining a growing list of vanishing trades.

Mr Ng's 38-year-old son Tze Yong, who grew up in the shophouse, is hard pressed to keep the business sustainable.


Madam Tan Chwee Lian and her son, Mr Ng Yeow Hua, close the shop at the end of the day, just as neon lights from nearby pubs flicker on. Located in Neil Road, the trendy enclave of Chinatown, Say Tian Hng Buddha Shop, which translates into Heavenly Garden in Hokkien, was founded 122 years ago in 1896 by two migrant brothers from Jinmen, China. ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

"It has always been at the back of my mind, what is going to happen to it (the shop) eventually," said the younger Mr Ng, who is the chief executive of a local charity group, Equal-Ark.

Using the Airbnb Experiences platform, he and his family started running workshops out of Say Tian Hng eight months ago.


Madam Tan Chwee Lian with a completed effigy. Stern-faced, barefoot and stepping on the unusual footrests of a tortoise and serpent, Xuan Wu is one of the highest-ranking deities in the Taoist pantheon. Some believe he was a prince born from a divine conception, after a queen swallowed a sun. Others believe he was a butcher who, in a grief-stricken act of repentance, tore out his innards. His stomach became a demonic tortoise and his intestines an evil serpent. On her hopes for the shop, Madam Tan said: “My wish is that I pass these skills on to my son and that he will pass them on to his children to ensure that the craft continues. That will be the best.“ ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

Those who sign up are given a rare behind-the-scenes look at the art of effigy-making, with some hands-on experience included.

During the two-hour session, at $48 per person, the younger Mr Ng introduces participants to the various deities, among other things, before Madam Tan shows them one part of the process, such as drawing and outlining a dragon motif.


With his weathered hands and bristles, Mr Ng Yeow Hua brings colour and life to a block of camphor wood. When completed, this Monkey God effigy will likely find a home in the business world as the deity is revered by entrepreneurs and towkays for its savviness, foresight and inventiveness. ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

The participants then have a go, using traditional tools to outline the motif on a small wooden slab.

Apart from the workshops, Mr Ng and his younger brother Tze Chong, 35, spend an hour a week with their grandmother to learn more about the trade from her.


An old family photo. As a young mother, Madam Tan Chwee Lian ran the shop with her husband while raising seven children. The hours were long, and after the shop closed every night, she would stay up to sew clothes for her children. All the clothes in the family portrait, including hers and her husband’s, were sewn by her. ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

Through the efforts of the Ng family, Singaporeans and tourists get to experience and find out about a part of Singapore's cultural heritage.

Summing up the family sentiments, Mr Ng Tze Yong said: "My hope for the future of the shop is for us to find a way for it to continue sustainably."

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The art of effigy making: http://str.sg/owfM

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 05, 2018, with the headline 'Effigy maker'. Print Edition | Subscribe