Artisan in dying trade

A month before Chinese New Year, Mr Jeffrey Eng, owner of traditional Chinese craft shop Eng Tiang Huat, works late into the night on his trusty old Singer sewing machine.

He is making traditional red cloth banners ordered by customers such as home owners and clan associations to usher in Chinese New Year.

Though he makes these auspicious pieces all year round, the demand picks up during this festive period.

He gets about 30 orders at this time from regular customers who want to replace an old one or new customers who come to know him by word-of-mouth.

These could be a simple banner - just red bunting with tassels at the ends - to more elaborate pieces.

Once, a customer ordered a three-storey-tall satin banner with six large pom poms for a hotel opening.

For many traditional-minded Chinese people, hanging red banners over the main entrance of a home or shop is a symbol of luck.

The practice goes back to a Chinese folklore story about Nian, a mythical beast that attacked people in villages.

Villagers discovered that Nian was afraid of loud noises and red things.

To this day, red banners go up on doors to "scare" Nian away and it is also why the Chinese wear red clothes.

Mr Eng, 55, says: "The Chinese are superstitious about these things. It's a lucky motif they must have. These red and gold things might seem gaudy, but they'resigns of prosperity."

There is much skill - and mathematics - to making a red banner.

The length of the cloth needs to be measured correctly. Customers have even requested specific lengths for fengshui reasons.

Besides hemming the rough edges, he embellishes the cloth with yellow tassels.

For more elaborate banners, he folds and gathers cloth to form fluffy pom poms that dangle by the sides of door frames.

A banner for a 1m-wide door frame can cost between $80 and $120, depending on the material and the number of poms poms added.

He can also make cushions and table runners with auspicious embroidered motifs - lions, dragons and phoenixes.

He has a limited supply of these motifs, which were bought by his grandfather decades ago from China.

He does not buy any more as new ones are made with synthetic materials.

When Mr Eng is not creating pieces for Chinese New Year, he makes elaborate altar cloths that feature embroidered images of mythical Chinese deities.

Although he says he is working in a dying trade, he keeps the business going for sentimental reasons.

In 1937, his late grandfather opened Eng Tiang Huat, a tailoring shop in Merchant Road he named after himself.

He would make Chinese-styled outfits for the labourers that worked at the nearby Singapore River.

The Chaozhou native often travelled back to China and started importing goods such as linen, Chinese musical instruments and costumes for opera actors.

Mr Eng's father took over the shop in the 1950s.

Mr Eng had no plans to join the family business, even though he helped out during his school days.

After completing his national service, he wanted to work for someone else.

But his father thought his youngest child was an apt successor - he told regular customers Mr Eng would take over the business from him.

Mr Eng has an older brother and sister.

"I didn't have a choice," says Mr Eng. "I had to be good and not go against my father's wishes."

He learnt the ropes - sewing banners as well as tuning and mending broken instruments - by himself.

While his father, who died in 1994, would not offer praise and even chided him when he did something wrong, Mr Eng knew he had earned his father's trust when he was tasked to do more complicated work.

Over the years, the shop stopped making clothes for workers and specialised in banners and altar cloths.

He still sells musical instruments and has included martial arts weapons and traditional wedding items.

Eng Tiang Huat moved from Merchant Road to River Valley Road and is now housed in a two-storey conserved shophouse at 10 Lorong 24A Geylang.

The shop is a treasure trove of antiques and Chinese products.

Pipas, Chinese flutes and erhus hang from a line above glass-encased display shelves, which are filled with cloth and opera props.

It is unlikely that Mr Eng's three daughters will take over, however. His eldest daughter runs a bakery, while the other two are students.

Mr Eng, who is married to a housewife, says: "People say heritage should be preserved and I thought I would promote and revive this trade. But I've changed my mind. It will be impossible to get the materials and it just doesn't have the flavour of the past. This craft will soon vanish.

This article was first published on Jan 14, 2017.
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