Trading stories with six tradesmen

15 03 2013

An often overlooked chapter in the Singapore story is the one that is written by our pioneering tradesmen. Many had little choice to turn to their trades as a means of income, but in doing so, they were able to contribute to society by serving the many important needs of the growing population in the early days of the development of Singapore. While many of these trades have fallen victim to the rapid pace of change, as well as perhaps to the globalisation, and have been forgotten about; there are some which have managed to stay relevant or have evolved to meet the changing needs of today’s society. An exhibition which opens to the public today at the National Museum of Singapore, Trading Stories: Conversations with Six Tradesmen, looks at some of the tales of these tradesmen, through personal accounts from six pioneering tradesmen, some who have retired from their trades, and some whose trades are still very much alive today.

Exhibition panels featuring former Samsui woman, Mdm Ng Moey Chye, 81, who was actually the daughter of another Samsui woman.

Exhibition panels featuring former Samsui woman, Mdm Ng Moey Chye, 81, who was actually the daughter of another Samsui woman.

Letter writer Mr Thangaraju s/o Singaram, who is 85 years old and was from Tamil Nadu, India.

Letter writer Mr Thangaraju s/o Singaram, who is 85 years old and was from Tamil Nadu, India.

Exhibition panels featuring tukang urut, Mdm Runtik Binti Murtono, a 53 year old immigrant from Surabaya.

Exhibition panels featuring tukang urut, Mdm Runtik Binti Murtono, a 53 year old immigrant from Surabaya.

The exhibition which will be on until 23 June 2013, features the stories of a traditional goldsmith, a movie poster painter, a tukang urut (or Malay confinement lady), a Samsui woman, a poultry farmer and a letter writer, recounting the colourful journeys taken and the experiences of these tradesmen.  In doing so, we do not only hear tales of sacrifice and struggle in the early days of Singapore, we also gain many insights into the trades themselves and perhaps in them, many other stories that would otherwise not have been told, such as that of the Achari craftsmen caste and the wows to remain single that many Samsui women took.

Mr Ho Seng Choon, of Lian Wah Hang Quail and Poultry Farm, one of the six tradesmen featured, speaking to Mr Sam Tan, Senior Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth at the opening of the exhibition.

Mr Ho Seng Choon, of Lian Wah Hang Quail and Poultry Farm, one of the six tradesmen featured, speaking to Mr Sam Tan, Senior Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth at the opening of the exhibition.

Panels featuring Mr Murugaian s/o Ratnaswami Asari, 72 a goldsmith who came as a carpenter from Tamil Nadu, India in 1957.

Panels featuring Mr Murugaian s/o Ratnaswami Asari, 72 a goldsmith who came as a carpenter from Tamil Nadu, India in 1957.

Former movie poster painter Mr Ang Hao Sai. Behind him is a hand-painted movie poster made for his 2008 film, My Magic.

Former movie poster painter Mr Ang Hao Sai. Behind him is a mock up of a traditional cinema on wheels (peep-show) and a hand-painted movie poster loaned by filmmaker Eric Khoo that was made for his 2008 film, My Magic.

Besides the six tradesmen, the exhibition also includes a community segment which features over 20 exhibits contributed by the community. These include private artefacts and keepsakes, locally produced documentaries and a community photography exhibit. One which caught my attention is khat calligrapher, Mr Faizal Somadi’s beautifully executed works of Jawi calligraphy. Jawi is a less often used traditional Malay script which in more recent times has been replaced by the romanised script. Visitors to the exhibition will also be encouraged to leave some of their personal memories of old trades behind by posting notes on a wall.

A reflection of a fan with Chinese calligraphy with a showcase of showing the tools of the trade.

A reflection of a fan with Chinese calligraphy with a showcase of showing the tools of the trade.

Mr Faizal Somadi, a khat calligrapher whose works are on display, speaking to Mr Sam Tan.

Mr Faizal Somadi, a khat calligrapher whose works are on display, speaking to Mr Sam Tan.

Visitors can leave some of their own memories of old trades behind.

Visitors can leave some of their own memories of old trades behind.

Also to look out for as part of the exhibition, is a series of street theatre performances and demonstrations of the old trades. This will take place at the museum on weekends in May and June. The museum has introduced programmes for primary and secondary school students. Trading Stories runs from 15 March to 23 June 2013 at the museum’s Stamford Gallery and opens from 10 am to 6 pm daily. Admission is free. More information can be found at www.nhb.gov.sg/tradingstories.

Photographs and memories of spaces where some of the trades once thrived - my personal contribution to the exhibition.

Photographs of spaces where some of the trades once thrived – my personal contribution to the exhibition.





Corridors of Trade

14 03 2013

A feature of the once ubiquitous shophouse is the five-foot-way. The corridors, conceived as shelter for pedestrians, also made an inexpensive space for many a tradesman to conduct business.

A mobile phone vendor along a five-foot-way at Serangoon Road.

A mobile phone vendor along a five-foot-way at Serangoon Road.

The five-foot-way was often what we visited to pick the newspaper up; get our hair done; have our shoes mended; and, where we could indulge in that favourite bowl of noodles.

A treat I would look forward to as a child was having my favourite bowl of beef-ball soup sitting at a table on a five-foot-way along Hock Lam Street.

My maternal grandmother might also have plied her trade on the five-foot-way – she sold appam in the vicinity of Simon Road Market in the uncertain days that followed the end of the war.

The surviving corridors are mostly silent, abandoned by tradesmen we no longer have need for, except for a few.

(A contribution to National Heritage Board’s “Trading Stories: Conversations with Six Tradesmen” exhibition which will be on at the National Museum of Singapore from 15 March to 23 June 2013)


Trading Stories: Conversations with Six Tradesmen is a community exhibition on old trade­­­­­­­s in Singapore and how tradesmen have coped with the challenge of changing times. Featuring the lives of six individuals who have made their living as a traditional goldsmith, movie poster painter, tukang urut or Malay confinement lady, Samsui woman, poultry farmer and letter writer, the exhibition sheds light on some of Singapore’s old trades through their personal stories – stories of sacrifices and struggles, of passion and fortitude, of entrepreneurial courage and adaptability.

This community exhibition at the Stamford Gallery also features numerous community contributions such as the loan of private keepsakes, locally produced documentaries and a community photography exhibit on old local trades. Members of the public are also invited to contribute to the exhibition by sharing their personal memories and stories of old trades in Singapore.








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