Sign in the City

Making traditional Chinese signboards in Malaysia

Walking down the streets of Georgetown, the capital of Penang (an island off the western coast of Malaysia), ambling past traditional Chinese shop houses, zigzagging past Hindu temples, stumbling into Buddhist shrines, and lending an ear to the muezzin’s call to prayer, it is easy to step back in time: one of steam-ship travel, of bustling multicultural exchange and trade.

At the northern tip of the infamous Straits of Malacca–one of the oldest and busiest shipping lanes in the world that links the Indian Ocean to the Pacific–Penang Island is an incredible mix of cultures. First entering into the whirl of global trade with the advent of Portuguese spice traders in the early sixteenth century, Penang later became a key piece in the great game of maritime domination that raged between the Dutch and the British in the Far East. It was the discovery of tin at the end of the nineteenth century, and the development of rubber, sugar, and pepper plantations on the Malaysian mainland that brought Penang harbor to international fame–attracting immigrants (with their trades and crafts) from around the world. By the early nineteenth century, Penang was home to Malays, Indonesians from Aceh, Sumatra, and Java, Burmese, Thais, Arabs, Indians from Gujarat, Bengal, Punjab, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu, as well as Armenians, British, Germans, and Chinese.

In the maze of Georgetown’s historical streets and bustle of faiths, many of the crafts and traditional trades from these various immigrant communities still survive: handcrafted Nyonya (Malay-Chinese) beaded shoes, Indonesian batik, hand-molded large incense sticks called joss sticks, traditional Chinese lanterns made in a small workshop on Magazine road, the traditional Malay songkok hat maker, and many others. But most of these old crafts and traditional stores are kept by an aging group of almost octogenarians, and stand in peril of disappearing. Already the coffee maker on Steward Lane who used to roast his Indonesian coffee beans with sugar, sesame seeds, margarine and salt has closed his doors, and many other traditional trades–like traditional signboard engraving–are also fading fast.

Although only twenty years ago there were still half a dozen traditional signboard engravers in Georgetown, today only one remains. A handful of sign engravers still work in the cities of Ipoh and Malacca on the mainland of Malaysia, but lacking young apprentices, the trade is on the brink of extinction. With too much competition from machine-carved or plastic signs, compounded with the slow speed of traditional production (one to three weeks for one sign), and the high price of labor and materials, traditional signboard makers struggle to survive, and have not been able to find or train people interested in continuing their work.

I recently had the privilege of designing several signboards with Penang’s last signboard maker, Mr. Kok Ying Chow.

None of Mr. Kok’s five children will take over the business, but despite his age and the slow pace of business, Kok Ying Chow labors on in his dusty shop on Queen Street. It is the same shop first opened in the early twentieth century by his father, a Chinese migrant from China’s Guangdong Province, and is also where Mr. Kok Junior was born. After mastering the engraving craft in Guangdong at the age of fourteen, Mr. Kok Senior, left his turmoil-laden homeland to start his business and raise his family in the bustle and opportunity of Georgetown.

Propped up by the significant Chinese communities in Penang, the signboard business on the island flourished in the twentieth century. Hung up on the outside of shops, as well on temples, clan houses and occasionally residential homes, the hand-carved wooden signs were an important part of Penang’s Chinese community. The boards indicated a business’ name and purpose, but were also seen as an auspicious sign capable of bringing good “Qi” and luck to a business.  The signboards could also be used to display the region, family name or clan of an owner. In clan houses, the hand-carved signs also served as a means to publicize the benefactors of the clan house, as well as a means to exhibit and to praise the accomplishments of certain clan members.

Made to resist the humid and often times brutal tropical weather of Malaysia, the signboards are sturdily made. Wood is first sandpapered, and then treated with a layer of glazing putty to further smooth out the surface. The characters are then traced onto the board, and carved. Another layer of putty and then thinner is applied to the board, at which time the board is ready to be painted. The characters are painted gold and the exterior painted black, red or green.

Today Mr. Kok has simplified the first steps of the process. Once we have chosen a script for our collaborative signboard, (a line from a poem by Bei Dao from his collection “The Rose of Time”), Mr. Kok goes to the neighboring internet café to print out the characters in a thick font. Returning to his studio with this printout, he pastes it onto the board and starts with the carving. Although this part of the process is slightly streamlined, the whole process of carving a small eight-character board will take him at least two weeks. It’s a slower pace than usual, because of the Chinese New Year, but Mr. Kok’s well-worn hands don’t like being rushed, and he seems well versed in negotiating time.

Anne-Laure Py is the founder and director of Central Asian Craftspring. She lives in Beijing, China and travels often to Central Asia. To learn more about Craftspring, please visit, www.cacraftspring.com.

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