We The People is a column commemorating Singapore’s independence and the people who are working towards making our country an even better place. In it, we speak to a diverse slate of personalities, from environmentalists and entrepreneurs to trailblazing creatives for their vision of society. These are the voices that make Singapore home.
We came across Say Tian Hng as a matter of chance by walking up the hills of Neil Road to a cafe. The shop, lined with effigies on both sides, seemed a little out of place in a buzzy neighbourhood that was rife with modern businesses and eateries. Here, time seemed to stand still, and while we were curious enough to do a double take, there was still plenty of apprehension to casually head in for a closer look.
Just outside the door, however, stood a poster indicating a public programme they were running. “Where Gods Are Born — The Lost Art of Effigy Making,” it read. There was zero hesitation on our part to sign up.
After our enlightening experience (sign up here!) with a docent named Jan, we managed to catch a word with 4th-generation owner and apprentice craftsman at Say Tian Hng Buddha Shop, Ng Tze Yong. Here, we were given insight into the 126-year-old business of hand-crafting wooden statues of Taoist and Buddhist deities, such as the Monkey God and the Goddess of Mercy using traditional techniques that have been passed down over generations, all of which continue to be made by Tze Yong’s 91-year-old grandma and 70-year-old dad.
Today, Tze Yong has a challenge of his own: to reinvent the business for the younger generation whilst still keeping the traditions of the art form alive. To do so, he trades his “MacBook and Chrome tabs for hand tools, solvents and statues in various stages of a makeover,” once a week to apprentice with his grandma and dad.
We talk to him about the misconceptions about effigy-making, the importance of holding on to such traditions, and supporting heritage businesses in Singapore.
For the uninitiated, could you elaborate a little more about effigies and the craft behind it?
Effigies are wooden statues used by Taoists and Buddhists in religious worship, usually found on altars in temples, homes, or ramshackle shrines under trees and along back alleys. They depict deities who can be mythological characters (like Monkey God) or historical figures (like Guan Yu of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms who was born in 160 A.D.). Each is an embodiment of timeless values, such as courage, honour, perseverance, compassion, etc; values that remain important today, perhaps more so in our post-truth, cancel culture era!
Unlike monotheistic religions, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of deities in the Taoist pantheon. They represent a diverse and inclusive representation of divinity: there are deities who are men and women, elderly and children, humans and beasts, warlords and magistrates, saints and rebels.
Interestingly, they also represent the concept of deviant divinity. Many of these heroes are flawed – think drunken monks, criminals-turned-generals, and teenagers who rebelled against their parents (perhaps not uncommon today, but unforgivable in ancient times). Ironically, it is the existence of these flaws that make them relatable. It made these gods human. They are venerated for the ways they led their lives, despite their flaws. Their stories are ultimately of devotion and redemption.
The techniques we use are traditional ones. One such technique is called 漆线 (Qi1 Xian4: “painting lines” in Hokkien). It is what you do to create the intricate motifs on the robes and armour of the deities, such as dragons, chrysanthemums, peonies, pavilions, castles and clouds. These motifs are too minute to be carved because the entire effigy might be just the size of a tissue box.
What we use instead is joss stick ash. When you light an incense, the smoke carries your petitions up into heaven, and the ash falls. We collect the ash, wash them, turn them into dough using a special recipe, and then twirl and coil them to make the motifs on the clothes of the very deities you pray to. It’s a beautiful cycle. It’s also frugal innovation. Joss stick ash is used because the powder needs to be extremely fine to make the thin threads that depict the intricate patterns. In China, this technique is also used to make traditional motifs on plates and vases for sale as gifts for foreign diginitaries.
What are some of the misconceptions that many people have about effigy-making?
That it’s scary. Many Singaporeans, myself included, grew up seeing them on the altars, alongside red lamps, swirling incense, and a potpourri of odd paraphernalia. There are styrofoam boxes of food with a fine sprinkling of stray ash, that you are supposed to consume after for good luck!
All that is through the religious lens. That’s the nature of this religion. It’s quite visceral.
But if we look at them from a non-religious lens, it’s quite different. You would see them as part of a broader landscape — Chinese philosophy, literature, and culture — not simply as your grandma’s rituals or superstitions.
You can appreciate the ideas they represent without having to worship them. You can look at Monkey God as the main character of a Ming Dynasty novel equal to any Shakespearean work, Mazu (Goddess of the Sea) as the connecting thread between the Chinese diaspora, and Laozi as the father of an ancient philosophy that had plenty to say about how to lead a good life.
What are some of the most unforgettable pieces Say Tian Hng has made or an interesting piece you’d like to share?
The most interesting pieces aren’t actually effigies. My grandparents were commissioned by the Sultan of Brunei in the 80s to restore the furniture in his palace. They spent six months living and working there.
Say Tian Hng is evolving with the times. Rather than only creating effigies for customers, you guys have workshops for the public too. What is the main purpose of those experiences?
These experiences were one of the outcomes of a Design MBA programme that I was enrolled in at New York’s Parsons School of Design. Instead of studying the usual case studies of business innovation for my final-year project, such as Amazon or Uber, I chose my grandma’s shop. The design question was how to reinvent a shop of gods established in 1896 for the 21st century. What do you change? What do you keep?
The idea to have workshops for the public was one of the more obvious ideas that came to mind as part of the project. We’re an old shop in a hipster neighbourhood. We’re close to the youngsters who frequent the cafes at Neil Road, Duxton Hill and Keong Saik, as well as the tourists wandering the fringes of Chinatown. They walk by the shop every day and often, we see them do a double-take when they see the hundreds of statues from floor to ceiling, some as small as an iPhone, some as big as a chair.
I can see the questions in their minds: Is this a temple, can they come in, is it appropriate? After all, we are primarily a craft workshop, with tools, materials and half-completed works lying around. My grandma and dad also don’t speak English.
So that’s how the idea for the experiences came. We’ve been conducting them since 2017 on travel platforms such as Airbnb, Klook, Pelago (which is part of Singapore Airlines) and soon, Tripadvisor. The tours are conducted by docents we trained, who will talk about the mythologies, craft and family history. My dad is there to do a little demonstration and share what he knows. It’s something different and I think people leave a little enriched.
We hear that NFTs are also something you’re exploring for the shop as well — tell us a little more about that.
We’re exploring the intersection between tech and Chinese folk religion with a tech start-up. It’s an interesting juxtaposition that presents some fascinating possibilities, particularly around the property of immutability but we haven’t found definitive answers yet. We’re not interested in chasing the hype, but more in how things will look when the dust settles, and whether new niches emerge for us.
In essence, you don’t set out to become a heritage business. What happens is that you are anointed, when you happen to be one of the last ones standing.
Ng Tze Yong, fourth-generation owner and apprentice of Say Tian Hng
It’s a tough balancing act between tradition and innovation, but how do you aim to safeguard the history and legacy of the craft while still keeping it relevant for younger generations?
We’re doing a couple of things: A modern education arm and a contemporary product line.
Currently, our products are religious goods, and our customers are temples and devotees in Singapore. These two new things will broaden our reach to the secular and international audiences.
The modern education arm, called the Academy of Classical Chinese Culture, uses drama-based children’s workshops to pass on the stories of ancient Chinese culture, literature, and philosophy, as well as the universal values they embody such as integrity, courage, perseverance, and compassion. It’s a portal for the non-religious to enter and learn about this Marvel Universe of heroes, which is a core part of our children’s cultural heritage. It will provide them with cultural capital, which will come in useful in a future that will see China’s economic rise. Speaking and writing the language is one thing. Knowing the culture is another.
We got the academy set up with the support of the National Heritage Board about a year ago and the response from parents has been encouraging with many of our programmes sold-out, so we believe this is a new niche our old shop can fill for the community.
The second thing we are doing is a contemporary product line. Basically, it’s home décor. Our effigies are usually placed on altars in temples and homes. But we wonder: Can they one day also be placed in living rooms and offices in London and New York? Instead of just objects of worship, can we also create works of art?
When I look at these statues, I don’t see them as statues, but as stories. They are embodiments of timeless and important stories. It’s similar to how some people keep figurines of Spiderman or the Incredible Hulk in their office cubicles. It’s not like they pray to Spiderman. Rather, it’s something about the story of Spiderman that resonates with them. If we can resonate so deeply with modern stories from Hollywood, is it possible to do the same with ancient stories from our own culture?
To do this, we need to – from a design viewpoint – signal the non-religiousity in an explicit way. No gold, bright primary colours, and ornate motifs, which are associated with religious iconography, but use a design language that is different, yet respectful. If we push this idea further, can we give these statues a new function in the home, instead of being a passive piece of home décor like a vase?
This was the goal of a design competition we held in 2020, called Design For Deities. We issued a challenge to designers to reimagine a traditional statue of the Monkey God in our shop. We got together a panel of judges comprising folks from Parsons School of Design, IDEO (the Silicon Valley design firm), the Royal Anthropological Institute of the UK, Singapore Heritage Society, as well as a Singapore President’s Design Award-winning designer. Alongside them on the panel were, of course, my grandma and dad!
We received more than 30 entries from designers in Singapore, Malaysia, China, Taiwan, the UK, Australia, and even Cambodia and Mauritius. There were fascinating entries. One imagined the Mountain of Flower and Fruit (Monkey God’s home) as a terrarium with an in-built diffuser. Another represented Monkey God’s story of trial and redemption as a table-top hourglass.
The winning design went to a pair of young Singaporean designers. We’re now working with them to fine-tune and turn their design into reality.
In that same line of thought, do you see the practice of effigy-making being lost with generations to come?
Yes, certainly. It’s interesting because when you’re outside looking in, you tend to view it through the lens of romanticism. From the inside, it’s simply a way to make a living. My grandma was amused, when we started the workshops years ago, that people would come to see the shop to see what we do. For her, it was simply a way to put bread on the table, to bring up seven kids in the post-war years.
Why do you think it’s important for us to still hold on to such traditions? How are these traditions so integral in Singapore’s cultural fabric?
After the Cultural Revolution, a lot of Chinese heritage survived and thrived only outside of China in the Chinese diaspora, in places such as Singapore. So if you look at it from an international point of view, say tourism, we have a precious asset.
The importance, from a domestic point of view, is that we often talk about how our Pioneer and Merdeka Generations are so resilient, but I think what we don’t recognise enough is that for many of them, their resilience stemmed from religion.
Religion, whichever it was, gave them strength, hope and peace, even until today. So when we look at these effigies, rituals and even places of worship, sometimes we go, oh, they are so old-fashioned, superstitious, or even unhygienic. We fail to recognise these were the source of our loved ones’ strength, without which we wouldn’t be here. So I think honouring that, regardless of one’s beliefs, is important.
I can share an interesting tangent, while we are at it. There seems to be a rise of homeless effigies in recent years, with the Pioneer and Merdeka Generations passing on. Many of their children are unable to take over their parents’ treasured effigies, due to different beliefs or space constraints. For most, there are two options: Leave them under a tree, or bring them to a temple to be burned. But Singapore is the world’s cleanest city. When you leave them under a tree, the town council’s cleaners remove it by the next day.
How often do you see effigies under trees in Singapore? If you bring them to a temple, the temple charges a S$20 red packet to burn each effigy. That’s why we started an effigy adoption service. For effigies that are suitable, we can take them in to be displayed for our public education workshops. We won’t be able to pay for it, and if a customer would like to give it a new home, we will refurbish and sell it. So this is an additional option. The customers who brought their effigies to us were grateful. It was a weight lifted off their shoulders.
What does it mean for locals to support heritage businesses in Singapore?
It’s about intentional choices. Just like going green or being cruelty-free, it’s about being willing to make trade-offs, whether it is to spend a little more or to travel a little further. But the payback is that you become a (spiritually) richer person. In a world that worships trends, these choices speak volumes about who we are.
What is your personal vision for Singapore?
Now that we are a first-world country, it’s time to reclaim our soul. We have lost much, even as we gained much. Without a soul – which I’d describe as a sense of identity and perspective – we will never be as confident as we can be as a people.
Where can one look to reclaim this soul? There are many places, and heritage businesses are one of them. Museums and books, etc are good sources too, but there is something about a craft, a craftsman, a craft studio, that represents this soulfulness in a special way, because it is not curated, it is (still) alive.