[dropcap size=small]I[/dropcap]t is that time of the year when auspicious-coloured decorations in every hue of red, gold and orange go on sale at stores and markets.
But if you want something different this Chinese New Year, ditch the store-bought decor and check out these bespoke products that some indie retailers are making.
Some of them, such as Jeffrey Eng, are traditionalists who are keeping heritage alive.
The 55-year-old learnt the art of making red banners for doors from his father. He can also make cushion covers and table runners with embroidered motifs.
Then there are young people such as Kerine Chun and Jerald Hui who are putting a new spin on old traditions. Instead of writing auspicious sayings on red paper, their bespoke decor and gifts business KCottageStudio is offering laser-cut acrylic or wood plaques with these Chinese characters.
The Straits Times talks to these artisans to find out more about their offerings.
ARTISAN IN DYING TRADE
A month before Chinese New Year, Jeffrey Eng, owner of traditional Chinese craft shop Eng Tiang Huat, works late into the night on his trusty old Singer sewing machine. He is making traditional red cloth banners ordered by customers such as home owners and clan associations to usher in Chinese New Year.
Though he makes these auspicious pieces all year round, the demand picks up during this festive period. He gets about 30 orders at this time from regular customers who want to replace an old one or new customers who come to know him by word-of-mouth.
These could be a simple banner – just red bunting with tassels at the ends – to more elaborate pieces. Once, a customer ordered a three-storey-tall satin banner with six large pom poms for a hotel opening.
For many traditional-minded Chinese people, hanging red banners over the main entrance of a home or shop is a symbol of luck. The practice goes back to a Chinese folklore story about Nian, a mythical beast that attacked people in villages. Villagers discovered that Nian was afraid of loud noises and red things. To this day, red banners go up on doors to “scare” Nian away and it is also why the Chinese wear red clothes.
Eng, 55, says: “The Chinese are superstitious about these things. It’s a lucky motif they must have. These red and gold things might seem gaudy, but they’re signs of prosperity.” There is much skill – and mathematics – to making a red banner. The length of the cloth needs to be measured correctly. Customers have even requested specific lengths for fengshui reasons.
Besides hemming the rough edges, he embellishes the cloth with yellow tassels. For more elaborate banners, he folds and gathers cloth to form fluffy pom poms that dangle by the sides of door frames. A banner for a 1m-wide door frame can cost between $80 and $120, depending on the material and the number of poms poms added.
He can also make cushions and table runners with auspicious embroidered motifs – lions, dragons and phoenixes. He has a limited supply of these motifs, which were bought by his grandfather decades ago from China. He does not buy any more as new ones are made with synthetic materials.
When Eng is not creating pieces for Chinese New Year, he makes elaborate altar cloths that feature embroidered images of mythical Chinese deities. Although he says he is working in a dying trade, he keeps the business going for sentimental reasons.
In 1937, his late grandfather opened Eng Tiang Huat, a tailoring shop in Merchant Road he named after himself. He would make Chinese-styled outfits for the labourers who worked at the nearby Singapore River.
The Chaozhou native often travelled back to China and started importing goods such as linen, Chinese musical instruments and costumes for opera actors. Eng’s father took over the shop in the 1950s. Eng had no plans to join the family business, even though he helped out during his school days.
After completing his national service, he wanted to work for someone else. But his father thought his youngest child was an apt successor – he told regular customers Eng would take over the business from him. Mr Eng has an older brother and sister.
“I didn’t have a choice,” says Mr Eng. “I had to be good and not go against my father’s wishes.” He learnt the ropes – sewing banners as well as tuning and mending broken instruments – by himself.
While his father, who died in 1994, would not offer praise and even chided him when he did something wrong, Eng knew he had earned his father’s trust when he was tasked to do more complicated work. Over the years, the shop stopped making clothes for workers and specialised in banners and altar cloths. He still sells musical instruments and has included martial arts weapons and traditional wedding items.
Eng Tiang Huat moved from Merchant Road to River Valley Road and is now housed in a two-storey conserved shophouse at 10 Lorong 24A Geylang.
The shop is a treasure trove of antiques and Chinese products. Pipas, Chinese flutes and erhus hang from a line above glass-encased display shelves, which are filled with cloth and opera props. It is unlikely that Eng’s three daughters will take over, however. His eldest daughter runs a bakery, while the other two are students. Eng, who is married to a housewife, says: “People say heritage should be preserved and I thought I would promote and revive this trade. But I’ve changed my mind. It will be impossible to get the materials and it just doesn’t have the flavour of the past. This craft will soon vanish.”
PROSPEROUS WELCOME WITH A FAMILY PLAQUE
Chinese New Year does not feel complete without auspicious sayings or lucky characters adorning walls or the front door. Often set against a red or gold background, popular options include “fu” – the Chinese character which means blessings – hung upside down; or “xing fu”, which means happiness and bliss.
But some home owners may want blessings around the home without loud colours and tacky fonts.
If so, bespoke decor and gifts company KCottageStudio has come up with a chic solution: a name plaque that combines auspicious Chinese characters with a family’s surname. For example, a customer with the surname Chen can order a piece with the characters “fu dao chen jia”, which translates to “fortune arrives at the Chen house”. The plaques, which are made of acrylic or wood, are laser-cut using an industrial machine. There are six designs so far, including “extras” such as faux peonies and cherry blossoms to add to the background. Prices start at $45.
KCottageStudio’s founder Kerine Chun, 28, hopes these modern designs will appeal to a younger crowd. “You can leave it up the whole year. There isn’t an overtly Chinese New Year feel to the plaques.” In 2014, she first experimented making objects with a laser-cutting machine she bought from China. First, she made cake toppers, then went on to create larger signs for weddings and events.
The business became good enough for her to quit her job as an analyst at a bank.
In 2015, she roped in Jerald Hui, 29, her secondary school and polytechnic mate, who left his job as an insurance broker. Together, they now work out of an industrial space in Sembawang, where they have two laser-cutting machines. Once the wood or acrylic is cut, they sand it down and spray-paint it, depending on what the customers want.
Their first hit was their wooden Christmas wreaths last year, which allowed the English names of the family members to be incorporated into the design. Later, they ventured into making Chinese New Year decorations and used Chinese words. Clients can also opt for a fully customised design. For example, for the upcoming Chinese New Year, a customer has ordered a wood plaque shaped like an ancient coin, with a hole in the middle and traditional fonts for the Chinese characters inscribed on it.
Hui says: “There is almost no limit to what you can design. It’s boring to pick something up from the store.”
FLORAL PINEAPPLE A FUN PIECE FOR TABLES
The pineapple plant is popular during Chinese New Year because “ong lai”, the Hokkien name for pineapple, sounds like “prosperity has come” – making the fruit a symbol of luck. But some may find using the pineapple plant as a display piece a little too wild for the indoors. So a florist has created a Prosperity Pineapple floral arrangement that makes for a unique table centrepiece. The arrangement is shaped like a pineapple and the yellow body is made of chrysanthemums stuck to a foam centre. The crown is made from Dracaena reflexa, or the Song of India plant.
It is the brainchild of Madam Lee Ai Tit, 62, florist-owner of Wood Flower Cottage in Siglap Centre, who started selling the floral piece last year. Previously, she had made them to give friends and family during the festive period. The Prosperity Pineapple comes in two sizes: A 20cm-tall one costs $100 and has a flower arrangement around it while a 10cm-tall version, which costs $80, is placed in a red pot. This year, she and her daughter Alice Kwah have also added a “parent-child version” that pairs the tall and short “pineapples” together.
Originally, Madam Lee had toyed with the idea of making arrangements shaped like a mandarin orange or pomelo – other popular fruits during Chinese New Year – but settled on the pineapple. On the Prosperity Pineapple, Kwah, 38, says: “The pineapple has leaves coming out at the top that make it look like the fruit is wearing a king’s crown. There’s a sense of grandeur to it, which makes it a good centrepiece.” Kwah left her corporate job last March to help her mother at the shop and promotes the business on social media.
Before she arranges the flowers, Madam Lee soaks the chrysanthemums in water to harden the stems so that they can pierce the foam structure more easily. The shop has already received 10 orders this year for the floral pineapples. The arrangements can last for about 10 to 14 days and need to be misted every four days.
While this may seem like a small order, Madam Lee says it takes some time to make each one. A 20cm-tall arrangement takes her about 11/2 hours. Last year, she made 20 arrangements. Kwah says the Prosperity Pineapple, which is a “twist” on the traditional festive plant, is not for everyone. Those who prefer something classic-looking will usually opt for plants such as orchids. She says: “This piece is more like the Vivienne Westwood of Chinese New Year plants – it’s fun and quirky.”