Meet the Singaporean artisans preserving Chinese New Year traditions

In a city that’s obsessed with modernisation, these artisans choose to protect the future of Singapore’s past. Meet two men who have dedicated their lives to traditional Chinese New Year crafts.

Red banner maker of Eng Tiang Huat in Singapore, Jeffrey Eng
  • Koh Yuen Lin
  • January 2019

If you asked passing travellers to describe Singapore, “fast-paced” and “efficient” might be some of the words that commonly come up. But nestled amongst the complex of cutting-edge skyscrapers, the glitz and glamour, and standing in defiance to the relentless pace of development are these men who come from a different time — a Singapore that was not so long ago, slower, steeped in tradition … simpler. By sticking to their disappearing trades and the time-tested methods of handcrafting their masterpieces from scratch, these sunset survivors keep a little part of heritage alive.

Eng Tiang Huat, Singapore
A visit to traditional Chinese craft shop Eng Tiang Huat, is like stepping back in time.

Going the extra yard

The artisan: Jeffrey Eng, third-generation red banner maker

“In the past, if you walked down the rows of shophouses at Geylang or Chinatown during Chinese New Year, you would see each household hanging up red banners of different designs in different fashions,” recalls Jeffrey Eng. “Putting up a red banner at the door was a way of announcing good news to the public.” It’s no surprise the owner of traditional Chinese craft shop Eng Tiang Huat would have paid special attention to them — after all, his family has been making these red banners for three generations.

The original Eng Tiang Huat at Merchant Road
The original shop at Merchant Road

“My grandfather arrived in Singapore from Shantou in China’s Chaozhou province in 1936, and started a tailoring business around 1937. Later on, he started to bring in special embroidery tapestries and opera costumes from China for members of the Teochew community in our neighbourhood at Merchant Court. The demand for tailored red banners — used by families, businesses, clan associations and even temples during festivals and celebratory occasions — followed after,” shares the soft-spoken 58-year-old, who now operates the business from a shophouse in Geylang, which also serves as his house.

Jeffrey Eng, third-generation red banner maker in Singapore
Eng continues to use his grandfather’s sewing machine to this day.

“The shop was my playground as a child, and my toy was my grandfather’s Singer pedal sewing machine. I would jam it and get a scolding from my dad. But he would teach me how to sew afterwards,” Eng recounts. Gaining confidence, he would try his hand at sewing different parts of the red banner — and once even had the needle pierce through his finger. That did not deter him; and his father, recognising his son’s resilience, decided to teach him the art of making red banners.

Handmade Chinese New Year red banners in Singapore
Unlike mass-produced red banners with pom-poms affixed onto the banner, Eng Tiang Huat’s is crafted entirely out of a single piece of cloth.

“For a banner that is about six yards wide, I would need about eight to 12 yards of cloth on each side just to make the one inch-wide folds that turn out to form the pom-poms,” shares Eng. This calls for careful calculation and meticulous tailoring, as any error would result in a lopsided banner. It also calls for time-honed expertise and strength: after the folds for the pom-poms are made, they are bundled and tied together tightly with string.

Handmade pom-poms for Chinese New Year red banners
Making the pom-poms for Chinese New Year red banners are technically demanding. Executed well, they are voluminous and round, and remain that way for years.

What took two craftsmen two days to create in his father’s time, he now has to make by himself. Eng admits to being extremely nervous when he had to make a red banner alone for the first time, following the passing of his father in 1994; but he has since become a master of his family’s craft. “I never compromise on quality. I go to the extent of sourcing European tassels and Japanese satin, simply because they drape much more elegantly,” he says with pride.

Eng Song Leng making ceremonial banners in Singapore in the ’70s
Jeffrey’s father, Eng Song Leng, making ceremonial banners in the ’70s

While he counts some of the country’s most prestigious organisations and families as his clients, Eng keeps his banners accessibly priced. “It is very laborious and difficult to make, but I wouldn’t want to price it so high that a young couple looking for a banner for their first home will find it prohibitive,” he says. “It’s my way of helping to keep the tradition alive.”

Eng Tiang Huat is at 10 Lorong 24A Geylang.

Save the last dance

The artisan: Henry Ng, lion dance costume maker

Henry Ng, Singapore’s sole surviving lion dance costumer maker
Meet Henry Ng, Singapore’s sole surviving lion dance costume maker.

This Chinese New Year, take a closer look at the dancing lion during the cai qing (“picking the greens”) ceremony in the office, or at your family reunion. If the lion head’s colours are bright and distinct, the design simple yet striking, and the frame constructed by a lattice of thinly-shaved bamboo strips, chances are, it was made by Henry Ng, Singapore’s last lion dance costume maker.

Henry Ng’s lion dance head designs
Lion dance costume making is not the only dying trade in Singapore. Local lion dance troupes are finding it increasingly challenging to recruit new members.

Ng has spent an entire lifetime with lions. This was the boy who would rush through his exam papers just so he wouldn’t miss a lion dance performance in the neighbourhood. “I would look closely at the frame of the lion heads, and loved going to Chinatown to look at the shops selling lion heads,” he recalls.

When he was a teenager, Ng gathered his savings, bought himself 100 eight-foot-long bamboo pieces, and tried to work out how to construct the frame of the lion head, repeatedly dismantling the whole piece and starting from scratch. “How to trim the bamboo pieces so that they make a smooth bend, how to get the curvature of a surface right, how to ensure symmetry … I learnt it all through trial and error, by the light of the lamp, while everybody was asleep.”

Over 100 bamboo strips are trimmed by hand to make a lion head.
Every strip of bamboo used to construct the frame of the lion head is trimmed by hand. It takes over 100 bamboo strips to make one lion head.

It remained a hobby and source of extra income as he grew up and became an aircraft mechanic. Then in 1995, when Ng’s request to take a month’s leave to look after his wife and soon-to-be-born son was declined, he quit, and decided to go full-time into making lion heads. He was immediately hit by a flood of orders that saw him with, ironically, hardly any time for his newborn.

Small squares of paper are glued onto the frame of the lion head.
It takes 12 man-hours just to make the frame of the lion head.

What sets him apart as a lion dance costume maker, says Ng, are his meticulous methods. He hand-trims every strip of bamboo so that it has the right resilience for bending. Each strip is then cut into precisely measured lengths for different parts, be it the crown, lip or horn. The bent bamboo is then secured at precisely marked points with strips of paper deftly wrapped around the joints.

Once finished, a layer of gauze is carefully glued over, acting as a base for three more layers of small squares of paper — each piece hand-cut by Ng — to be stuck on. Each layer requires three hours to dry completely, and only then can Ng proceed to paint the lion heads, breathing soul and character into them.

A completed lion head in Henry Ng’s workspace.
Ng is aware of cheaper mass-produced alternatives available today. “The mass-produced lion heads don’t last half as long. Not everybody appreciates workmanship and tradition,” he says.

I have wanted to give up so many times. Retire. Enjoy my old age and not have to work late into the night, getting splinters in my fingers,” laments Ng. “But I am driven by passion, and even if I do stop making them, I hope to find a way to share my knowledge on the art of making lion heads.”

Henry Ng is contactable at liondanceartist@gmail.com