Tuesday, 2 September, 2014

Published February 15, 2014
Keeping dying trades alive
A businessman selling Peranakan tiles, a lantern maker and a tomb detective tell BT Weekend why they choose to do what they do
BT 20140215 SCTILE8W1H 959536

Mr Lim, a Peranakan who wants to preserve the culture, is believed to be the only person in Singapore to salvage old tiles. After restoration, the tiles find a new lease of life in homes, sometimes as hanging art pieces and also in restaurants. - PHOTO: TAY SUAN CHIANG

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BT 20140215 SCTILE8W1H 959536
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Hobby turned business

Aster by Kyra

22 Sin Ming Lane, Midview City, #08-76

Opening hours: 10am to 6pm on Saturdays; 1pm to 6pm on Sundays

WHAT began as an inexpensive hobby collecting Peranakan tiles has since turned into a lucrative business for Victor Lim.

Mr Lim, 53, a Peranakan, began collecting such tiles in the late 70s. "Many of the old bungalows in the Marine Parade area, which had these tiles, were being demolished then. I felt it was quite a waste for the tiles to be thrown away, especially since these tiles are a big part of the Peranakan culture," says Mr Lim, who gave up collecting coins and stamps because "they were too costly".

Together with a friend, the two began salvaging Peranakan tiles from homes that were about to be demolished, and would often have friendly competitions to see who could garner a bigger collection.

"My search for the tiles expanded from the seaside bungalows at East Coast to the shophouses in the Jalan Besar and Kallang areas," says Mr Lim.

He had about 100 pieces of tiles in his collection. "Back then, there was little value in these tiles, as no one wanted or paid attention to them, so it was easy to get hold of them."

Three years ago, the former hotelier decided to start Aster by Kyra, a business selling his collection of Peranakan tiles, which now number about 20,000 pieces, salvaged from shophouses in Singapore and Malaysia. "The goal is not only to keep this Peranakan culture alive, but also to make some money from my hobby," he quips.

These decorative tiles are officially termed majolica tiles, and the first pieces were believed to have been imported into Singapore from Britain in 1891. "They were used as floor tiles," says Mr Lim, who has done much research on the history of the tiles. He also plans to write a book on the topic.

Such tiles were popular in the 19th century in British homes, and often had an art noveau or floral motif. Besides tiles from Britain, there are also tiles made in Japan, and these have a more Asian look to them, featuring fruits, and mythical creatures such as the kirin.

Mr Lim is believed to be the only person in Singapore to salvage old tiles, and contractors know to call him when they are about to demolish an old building.

He now gets his tiles from temple courtyards, and other public buildings, and from the occasional shophouse. "Many shophouses today are under conservation, so the tiles on the facade cannot be removed, but I can salvage the ones in the interiors," he explains.

The tiles have to be carefully removed from the walls, to prevent chips and breakage. Often they come with the cement backing attached. The pieces are soaked in water for two to three weeks to remove the cement and dirt.

The restoration process continues at his workshop in Midview City, with the tiles soaking in a plastic container of solution that contains detergent and chlorine for another two weeks. The tiles are then cleaned with turpentine before getting another two-week bath in detergent to get rid of the turpentine smell. The final process involves polishing them with kerosene. Mr Lim learnt the process of restoration on his own.

For tiles with minor chips, repairs are done by applying cement and reglazing the tile.

While most of the tiles in the store are antique ones, Mr Lim also has a selection of customised tiles. To the untrained eye, these tiles look very much like their antique counterparts. There are slight differences - antique tiles have a toxic, metallic glaze on them. "The new tiles have a pigment glaze," says Mr Lim. The colours on the new tiles also tend to be less vibrant compared to the antique ones.

Depending on the condition and rarity of the antique tiles, each piece can cost from $44 to $280. It is a far cry from back in the 19th century, when each piece cost 12.5 cents, and were already considered expensive so only rich families could afford them. The customised tiles cost $12.50 a piece.

Mr Lim's antique tiles have found a new lease of life in homes, sometimes as hanging art pieces and also in restaurants. "I went into this because of passion, and I want to keep the heritage value going," he says.