He makes $500 a day playing with sand
Tan Joo Heng's results were not good enough to get him into secondary school. Yet today, the sand sculpture maker's work is in such demand that he gets to travel all over the world. -TNP
HIS results were not good enough to get him into secondary school.
Yet today, Mr Tan Joo Heng, 35, is in such demand that he gets to travel all over the world as part of his work.
He builds castles. Sand castles, to be precise.
In turning what many consider a hobby into a viable business, he sometimes gets paid up to $500 a day to create art out of sand and water.
His work has taken him to more than 40 cities in the last eight years, winning several awards and competitions along the way.
But pursuing his passion has not been an easy road to take.
Said Mr Tan: 'Friends and family used to say I was crazy to even consider becoming a sand sculptor.
'How could a hobby like building sand castles, considered an activity for kids, become a career?'
Growing up, Mr Tan was a poor student, failing to make it to secondary school after studying until Primary 8, as it was known in those days.
Instead, he studied how to make moulds at the former Vocational and Industrial Training Board, now known as the Institute of Technical Education.
After graduation, he enrolled in La Salle-SIA College of the Arts after national service.
But the school fees of $5,000 a year was a challenge for Mr Tan. His parents sold fish at a market at the time.
His mother also worked part-time as a maid to supplement the family income.
He said: 'My parents nagged me to get a proper job instead of studying the arts, something they considered frivolous, and not a career option.
'Part of me felt bad but it was something I felt strongly about. It was something I loved and I had to chase my dream.'
So halfway through his first year, he worked as a badminton coach to pay his fees.
In the second year, he secured a scholarship but continued working part-time so as not to burden his parents.
After getting his diploma in design communication, he studied for another year to get his bachelor's degree in design from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.
He was introduced to sand sculpting in 1997 by a friend who saw a competition in the US.
He was fascinated and started practising with tiny mounds of sand.
'I found it a real challenge as the work depends on the nature of the sand, the weather, the time, the environment.
'You can take 10 years to sculpt a piece of metal or wood, but you may have only 10 hours or 10 days to sculpt sand.'
In 1999, he did the display piece for Sentosa Sandstation, a sand-sculpting competition. His Singapore, The Cosmopolis, was a 7.5m-high sand sculpture that incorporated uniquely Singaporean icons like the Merlion and the MRT.
There, his skills were spotted by the president of the World Sand Sculpting Association, who taught him the science behind the art.
The principles of engineering and architecture have to be applied to create a sculpture that won't collapse when the wind blows.
It spurred him to take part in various sand sculpting competitions and assignments in China.
In 2000, he won an international sand-sculpting competition in the Netherlands. His winning piece, Roar Of The Lion, was a more fluid variation of the Merlion - one of his favourite creations.
Said Mr Tan: 'At that time, I told myself that I wanted to be one of the best sand sculptors in the world. It may be a tough road, but I was willing to give it a shot.'
From then on, his passion became his profession. In 2000, he set up his own sand-sculpting company here - Sandworkz.
He has since won at least six international and local competitions, and has taken part in more than 100 exhibitions and paid projects worldwide.
But he feels more needs to be done for the art form to be recognised here.
He said companies here are unwilling to pay a lot for sand sculptures for their events because they feel the sculptures do not last.
'In Singapore, I hardly get any assignments. If I were to depend on local jobs alone, it would be impossible to survive.
He charges between $10,000 and $50,000 for a local project, depending on the size and location of the sculpture.
These days, he spends most of his time in Europe, the US and Australia.
Still, his income can be irregular. So when he is back in Singapore, he sometimes still coaches badminton for extra cash.
He declined to reveal his exact income, saying it was less than $4,000 a month, 'just enough to get by'.
But he said he could earn up to 250 euros ($510) a day sculpting projects in Europe during summer.
He said: 'It's not a craft you can get rich from but my family is happy with what I've achieved.
'The world is changing. People have to think out of the box. Having a certificate does not always promise you success. So be brave and dare to dream.'
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