Wandering through Haji Lane last year, Ngee Ann Polytechnic student Luan Haoyue, 21, met an old tailor and became fascinated with the intricacy and originality of his craft.
But when she returned to look for him again this year, he was no longer there. "I realised young people should have more exposure to these trades," said Miss Luan.
For their final-year project, she and three classmates put together an app to get students aged nine to 16 interested in Singapore's disappearing trades.
The app, Project Old Jewels, is a role-playing game in which players enter a town of old shops. Through quizzes and games, they learn more about the shops.
Team member Koh Cheng Jun, 20, said he hopes the app will "lower the barrier for young people to get interested in heritage". Little information on old trades exists online or in library archives, so the team went on history tours and combed Singapore's back alleys for obscure trades.
Of the trades of the 20 or so shop owners they interviewed, four are represented in the app: Hokkien lantern making, Chinese embroidery, songkok making and snake charming.
The team was aware of existing heritage apps, such as the National Heritage Board's Balestier and Kampong Glam trail-based apps.
Initially, they planned to create a similar trail focusing on vanishing trades. But they realised during their research that many shop owners lacked the resources to entertain casual visitors.
"One joss-stick maker told me that people came just to look at him but not to buy anything," recalled Miss Luan.
One of the team's interviewees, snake charmer Yusof Kassim, 50, said: "So many children come to me, asking me to tell them about snakes. It's very time-consuming. It takes up about three to four hours a day."
With this in mind, the team designed the app to be less trail- based and more like a virtual briefing, so users would be more informed and genuinely interested when visiting the shops.
The team has been awarded an SG50 grant and will launch the app at an event next February. About a hundred primary and secondary school students have been invited to attend.
Even if those trades will not be around much longer, some tradesmen take comfort in knowing they will be remembered in a way.
Lantern maker Wong Pui Fatt, 60, said in Mandarin: "It is very hard to really preserve something if it is not sustainable. It is good to know someone is at least trying to archive (my trade). I cannot do this forever."
This article was first published on Dec 17, 2014.
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