Mala Kopitiam “Coffee Shop” could be the ultimate Singapore word. A polyglot mashup of Malay and Hokkien and a word deep rooted in Singaporean culture.
Tong Ah eating house could be the ultimate Kopitiam. Established in 1939 in the iconic 4 story curved building at the junction of Teck Lim and Keong Saik road, this family run business has been turning out a selection of Singapore culinary favourites for over 80 years.
No longer in the same building, but remaining on the same street, Tong Ah eating house and its famed owner “Ah Wee” Tang Chew Fue, continue to serve the crispiest kaya toast and the best kopi that Singapore has to offer.
Tong Ah and Ah Wee are as much of an institution as Kopitiam culture. I have tried to capture the essence of this in my painting of Ah Wee, “mid-pour” executing his art of kopi making, surrounded by the tools of his trade.
Taoist Deity Maker
In the midst of Singapore’s bustling cityscape, tucked away amidst the towering skyscrapers, resides a tranquil shop that holds a captivating secret. Enter Say Tian Hng Buddha Shop, a treasure trove brimming with an awe-inspiring collection of Taoist deity statues. For over 120 years, this family of skilled artisans has dedicated themselves to crafting, selling, and restoring these remarkable idols. Nestled in the heart of Chinatown, Singapore, this hidden gem remains undiscovered by many, except for the local Chinese population, particularly the elder generation. Yet, its legacy spans over a century, faithfully serving the local Chinese temples by providing them with meticulously hand-carved and painted wooden figurines known as “KimSin” or “gold bodies” in the local Hokkien dialect. Each piece represents a distinct deity, sought after by both temples and individuals for their spiritual abode.
Today, the responsibility of upholding this time-honoured tradition rests in the hands of the 3rd generation Ng Yeow Hua, the subject of my painting, and his remarkable mother.
Say Tian Hng Buddha Shop stands as a testament to Singapore’s rich cultural heritage, preserving and perpetuating the legends and traditions that surround these mystical deities.
Mala Flower Seller
Mala flowers hold significant importance in Indian culture, particularly in religious and spiritual practices. “Mala” refers to a garland or a string of flowers used for various purposes. These garlands are typically made using fresh flowers, often handcrafted by skilled artisans or flower sellers.
In Indian culture, mala flowers play a vital role in religious rituals, ceremonies, and festive occasions. They are offered to deities in temples and homes as a form of devotion and reverence. The act of offering mala flowers symbolizes purity, devotion, and surrender to the divine.
The Mala flower sellers of Little India not only enhance the visual appeal of the bustling streets, but also contribute to the cultural heritage of the community. Their passion for flowers and their dedication to their craft make them an integral part of the tapestry of Little India, spreading joy and fragrance with their exquisite creations
纸扎 Joss Paper Dealer
Joss paper, also known as ghost or spirit money, are papercrafts made into offerings and burnt in ceremonies common in Chinese ancestral worship.
These offerings, created from papier-mâché, bamboo and coloured strips of paper can be formed into extravagant and elaborate designs. Models are meticulously created and then burned, in the hope the smoke will deliver wishes to the afterlife.
Amidst the rapid modernisation of this island nation, ‘Joss Paper’ dealers continue to retain a place in cultural practices of Singapore. However, it is unusual to discover one centrally located in gentrified Chinatown.
Going against the grain of automated production is Tan Ah Hock, who has toiled over his papier-mâché creations, including houses, cars, figurines and even prosthesis, for over 5 decades.
On the day I met Ah Hock, he was, as always found topless, hunched over, hand making every single detail of an 8ft tall, 14ft wide paper house that was due to become ashes in the next 8 hours.