Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Little Shophouse, preserving dying craft

It's a surprising little place in a street of mainly rather minor souvenir places and modest local cafes.

The Little Shophouse at 43 Bussorah St in Singapore is run by gemstone carver Robert Sng and his sister Irene. What surprises is the quality and variety of mainly Chinese-based products on sale, which range from simple but tasteful carved pieces of semi-precious stone—including jade and agate—sold as pendants, through china sets to formal and not-so-formal items of Chinese dress clothing. Along with lots of other 'collectibles'.

But then there are the Peranakan beaded art shoes. Quite beautiful formal slippers, really, not much more. Until I saw the prices, which could range all the way up to the equivalent of six hundred euros ...

I had to ask. "What makes these worth so much?"

Irene Sng is pleasant, soft-spoken. Easy with English. "Because they can take up to two months to make," she said.

She brought me to a tiny area in her shop, no more than a chair in front of a frame, where she had some work in progress. The shoes are intricately decorated using hundreds, maybe thousands, of tiny coloured beads hand-sewn onto a light textile backing. The smaller the beads, the more time it takes. And the higher the eventual price.

"It's a dying trade. Some of the designs go back to the 18th century when Chinese traders came down to Singapore and intermarried with the locals to become the Peranakan ethnic group.

"My brother actually gives classes in the craft, but it is too slow for the young people of today. They want everything immediately, like on television. Most of his students are young Japanese ladies, the wives of Japanese men working here in Singapore."

Irene and Robert—"he's the artistic one in the family, and he has come up with some modern designs"—haven't always had the skills to make the shoes. Irene has actually been doing it for about eight years. "When we were young, we had neighbours who did it for a living. Eventually one of them married my sister and so the skills were brought into the family."