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A new book, The Machinist, captures the stories of six industrial artisans who have their workshops in the Jalan Besar area.

Mr Yee, owner of Hup Yick Engineering Works, has reached the age of retirement but enjoys the job too much to let it go.

Carpenter SK Phua of Wayman Enterprise.

Mr Yee's old toolbox, where he keeps all his measuring tools and blades.

Three Nafa lecturers collaborated with Mr Yee in a two-week design workshop in June 2015 to create jewellery and home accessory pieces from his vintage stock - these include this English chess set made with vintage obsolete auto parts from the Morris Minor to the Austin A50.

Man and machine

A new book brings readers into Jalan Besar's disappearing ship and auto repair workshops.
Jul 21, 2017 5:50 AM

MENTION the Jalan Besar area and most people think spas, cafes and boutique hotels. But the area used to house numerous ship and auto repair workshops back in the 1940s.

A new book, The Machinist, captures the stories of six industrial artisans who have their workshops in the area.

Of the six, only one tradesman - Yap Swee Kee, owner of Xinzhong Autoparts - has a successor. The other five are still in operation, but their last days are looming.

The book is the brainchild of Wendy Chua, Xin Xiaochang and Yuki Mitsuyasu, three Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa) lecturers.

From an earlier project, Ms Chua came to know Yee Chin Hoon, the last machinist in the Jalan Besar area. Mr Yee, 69, took over the running of Hup Yick Engineering Works from his late father. The company was established in the 1950s.

Last man standing

Mr Yee helms the second-generation metal lathe workshop and will be the last in his family to continue the industrial craft.

He began learning the craft seriously when he left school at 16 and has not looked back. Sadly, he has been unable to amass as many apprentices as his father did, and neither does he want his daughters to follow in his footsteps.

From the years of tolling in the din of the churning machines, Mr Yee has become hard of hearing. Though he has reached the age of retirement, he enjoys the job too much to let it go.

"I can't bear to give this up," he says, finding it unbearable to imagine that all the toolings and moulds, machines and raw materials would become worthless scrap metal should the workshop be sold one day.

Fearing that Mr Yee's skills would be lost when he retires, Ms Chua related his plight to her two fellow lecturers.

In June 2015, spurred by the need to tell his story and drawn to the precision of art metal lathing, the three lecturers collaborated with Mr Yee in a two-week design workshop to create jewellery and home accessory pieces from his vintage stock.

"We rummaged through what Mr Yee would consider trash and picked out pieces that we made into jewellery, such as brass spirals which we turned into earrings or threaded together to create a necklace," shares Ms Chua, 32.

An exhibition of the pieces was shown at the workshop and garnered much interest. But the trio felt that more could be done. "We felt the best way to document Mr Yee's experience was through photos and essays, hence the book," explains Ms Chua.

Over the last two years, they sold the jewellery at pop-up events to raise funds to produce the book.

Ms Chua declines to reveal the cost of the 300-page tome, of which 1,000 copies have been produced.

Besides Mr Yee's story, the book also follows the lives of five other artisans. "All six artisans have workshops with more than 30 years' history," says Ms Chua. They include companies such as Wayman Enterprise, a carpentry workshop and Kwong Soon Engineering that does ship repairs. Auto and ship repair workshops were the first businesses in the area before hardware shops started opening there.

Besides photographs and essays, the book also features architectural drawings of each workshop, giving readers an insight of the tradesmen's work spaces.

Telling their stories

Interviews were done with the artisans using a mix of Mandarin, Hokkien and Cantonese. "We're touched that everyone was open to telling us their stories, and for letting us into their workshops," notes Ms Chua. "With Jalan Besar being gentrified, many felt that they have been neglected and now there was someone to hear their stories."

Ms Chua says there has been much interest in local industrial craft even from abroad, especially Japan, and she hopes the book will be sold overseas.

Through the book, Ms Chua hopes that the younger generation will get to see old crafts that are disappearing. "More importantly, I hope that Mr Yee's spirit of craft will continue, even if his skills are lost," she adds.

On July 22 and 23, from 11am to 5pm, Mr Yee will be opening his workshop to the public, so visitors can experience the sensorial landscape of Jalan Besar's industrial past. Visitors who purchase the book will be invited on a self-guided tour of the area.

  • The Machinist is priced at S$45, and is available at and Hup Yick Engineering Works, 84 Horne Road