Tze Yong is not too worried about faltering demand for Say Tian Hng’s work, and he substantiates this by referring to the number of temples and home altars – each of which may host several effigies – in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Instead, he is more concerned about the scarcity of able craftspeople who can ensure the business’s longevity. Tze Yong is thus focused on ensuring the transmission of critical trade skills to the next generation of Say Tian Hng’s artisans, even as he painstakingly learns the craft from his father and grandmother. As Tze Yong knows he cannot carry the torch alone, he is keen to discover and train new talents outside the Ng family, and is thinking of introducing a skills development framework and career roadmap to attract and retain artisans. Believing that their apprentices “will be at the heart” of sustaining Say Tian Hng, Tze Yong remains optimistic for the business’s future.
Tze Yong’s ambitions for Say Tian Hng go beyond securing the continuity of their trade. He is of the opinion that Say Tian Hng can bring value to the community beyond the physical statues they create, and points out the stories and values connected with their trade as an example. These intangible traditions, which imbue their carvings with meaning, elevate their trade into something beyond just craftsmanship. Their carvings are a representation of historical ideas, and thus, Tze Yong believes that educational ventures are a very natural extension for Say Tian Hng.
At present, Say Tian Hng already conducts tours and workshops that cater to people of all ages, many of which sell out entirely. Encouraged by the positive reception, Tze Yong plans to work with educators and theatre practitioners to curate a rigorous curriculum that encompasses classical Chinese culture and the values commonly associated with it. To that end, the family has set up an education arm, the Academy of Classical Chinese Culture, that conducts non-religious programmes introducing famous Chinese classics to children. By sharing from books like Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国演义, Sāngúo Yǎnyì) and Journey to the West (西游记, Xī Yóu Jì), they hope to impart the good values enshrined within these historical texts. Tze Yong believes that these lessons remain just as salient today as when the classics were first written, and is confident that their secular teachings will find interest among Singaporeans, the Chinese diaspora in the West, and Mainland Chinese seeking to reconnect with their heritage after the Cultural Revolution.
Another example of Say Tian Hng’s innovative ventures is their “Design for Deities” competition. Artists worldwide were challenged to redesign a traditional statue of the Monkey God for a secular, international audience, with the requirement that the design had to express the traits associated with the deity, while also being respectful of the source material.
For this event, Say Tian Hng assembled judges from New York’s Parsons School of Design, Silicon Valley design firm IDEO, the UK Royal Anthropological Institute, Singapore Heritage Society, and Singapore’s President’s Design Award alumni. Say Tiang Hng’s own artisans, Chwee Lian and Yeow Hwa, were also among the panel’s luminaries. With prize money sponsored by Ean Keng Si Buddhist Temple (延庆寺, yánqìngsì), the competition attracted over 30 entries from designers in Singapore, UK, Australia, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Maldives, eager to showcase their work before the distinguished panel. Their creative entries also gave rise to a range of promising artistic directions for effigy-carving in the future. Thanks to their efforts (and after much deliberation), a winner was crowned, and the prototype statue of the Monkey God reborn now sits prominently in a glass display case in Say Tian Hng.
Tze Yong also understands that attractive packaging is critical in positioning the statue in the secular market. He is now working closely with designers to produce just that. Each statue should come in a box “as sleek as an iPhone’s”, he says, because such a presentation reflects the heritage business’s modern outlook, and will reframe public mindsets towards something that is usually more associated with rituals and religion.
A common concern for many heritage businesses is the proliferation of mass production technology, and Say Tian Hng is not unaffected by this. Products once carefully crafted using traditional techniques can now be replicated more quickly, more consistently, and more cheaply with modern technology. However, Tze Yong believes that the beauty of traditional pieces lies not so much in the finished products themselves, but in the craftsmanship and experience instilled in each one. Even the tiny imperfections of a handmade piece can tell a story not just about its crafter, but about the subjective and transient nature of beauty and value. Accordingly, Tze Yong believes that Say Tian Hng must educate consumers better about the nuances and skill that go into each and every statue, so that future generations will be able to appreciate the artistry that sets Say Tian Hng’s statues apart.