Haw Par Villa's last artisan

Painting topless mermaids, chicken-headed prostitutes and impaled heads is all part of a day's work for Mr Teo Veoh Seng.

He has helped to maintain Haw Par Villa's 1,000-odd surreal sculptures for the past 68 years.

Mr Teo, 81, who has been a painter there since he was 13, is the last artisan working on the sculptures. There were six of them before but the rest have since died. He hopes to retire soon, but there is no one who can take his place immediately.

Amid several paintbrushes, chisels and scrapers in his workplace, he laments that age has caught up with him and that he is no longer able to restore many of the larger-than-life statues in the sprawling park.

"I used to be able to climb up to the head of the Buddha, which is four storeys high. Now, I'm limited to whatever is accessible from the ground," he says in Hokkien.

He was trained by a master craftsman who had worked at Haw Par Villa's sister park, the now-defunct Hong Kong Tiger Balm Garden.

His work never ends as the sculptures' exposure to the elements results in deterioration and the need for constant restoration.

The great-grandfather of two works from 9am to 5pm five days a week. A Chinese national was recruited in 2011 to help him with the increasingly difficult task of maintaining the statues.

Mr Teo says Mr Chen Jinlong, 48, is the only apprentice he has had.

Mr Chen says in Mandarin: "It was initially difficult to adapt to the harsh weather and working hours.

"But under Mr Teo's guidance, I've learnt to find joy and satisfaction in restoring these statues."

Mr Teo hopes that, in time, Mr Chen will be able to take his place as the principal Haw Par Villa park artisan.

His daughter, Ms Adeline Teo, says that retirement could see him spending more time playing golf and catching up with his friends at the kopitiam.

Her dad, meanwhile, says: "My only wish is that Haw Par Villa will be well taken care of in the future."

This article was first published on Dec 10, 2015.
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