Chwee Lian owns Say Tian Hng, the last Taoist deity shop in Singapore, where her family has handcrafted these religious effigies for the past 121 years. But the trade has been in the family even longer, since the 1300s, when her husband’s ancestors first learned the skill from a master craftsman in southern China.
In 1896, two brothers came to set up shop in Singapore, and Chwee married into the family in 1949. Every day since, the 86-year-old mother of seven has worked in the narrow showroom overflowing with idols.
Chwee makes these effigies – which start from SG$300 – to be placed in temples or private homes, where they are believed to keep evil at bay. The cost reflects the work involved. To carve the deity, she starts with a block of camphor wood. “It’s also used by sea captains to make chests because this wood wards off moths,” Chwee says.
She then carves the wood into the form of an idol, customised depending on the purchaser’s requests, before applying a layer of plaster to smooth over any cracks. With a fine paintbrush, she colours the effigy and, on occasion, uses a narrow thread to embellish it with dragons, clouds, peony flowers and water spirals.
The final step is to paint the eyes. “If the effigy is destined for a temple, its eyes will be painted to look upwards, so it can make eye contact with devotees at the back of the temple,” Chwee says. “If it is for a home, the eyes are painted to look down, as the devotees are closer.” Once it is completed, she studies a Taoist almanac for auspicious dates to give the idol to her customers.
Chwee is keen for the family business, now run by her eldest son, to survive and expresses delight that her grandson has started working part-time at the shop. He helps lead twice-monthly workshops which can be booked through Airbnb Experiences and offer visitors an insight into the business and how the idols are created.
This article was originally published in the February 2018 issue of Silkwinds magazine.