History and Heritage Carved with Heart

loading Yeap Siew Kay with his Duke Hui Ze masterpiece.

With a sharp tool, a sharp sense of beauty and a sharp sense of history, Yeap Siew Kay works to ensure that one of Penang’s important crafts stays alive.

Traditions die hard, but once a traditional artefact or skill is gone, the extant works in that tradition retreat and assume “relic” status. So it is with the works of master craftsmen of traditional trades in places such as Penang if the skills are not passed down to apprentices who are in it for the long haul.

Traditional woodcarver Yeap Siew Kay, still sprightly at 69, realises the vulnerability of such intangible assets. He is willing to share the intricacies and secrets gained from 46 years of experience in cajoling, caressing and chiselling wood.

None of his three grown children – two sons and a daughter – are keen to follow in his footsteps because of the tough rigours of the trade. Technology has also made things handmade redundant and subject to high pricing.

A mentor at the Penang Heritage Trust’s (PHT) Penang Apprentice Programme for Artisans (PAPA) located at No. 6 Lebuh Aceh since 2009, Yeap was accorded the Living Heritage Award by the PHT. He is among the last of the breed officially recognised in Penang, the others being Chor Teik Heng, Lee Chee Cheng and Kok Ah Wah.

Close-up of Duke Hui Ze.

Masters in other fields like silversmith Fong Ten Sent and Chinese-lantern craftsman Lee Ah Hock have passed on.

In June, Yeap was featured in an unusual exhibition called Into The Woods at Run Amok Gallery, relocated to the arts and culture hub Hin Bus Art Depot. His skill, an integral and indigenous part of Asian art, took centre stage despite Run Amok’s reputation as a peripheral fringe space pushing contemporary art.

It helped, perhaps, that the bulk of works by two of his apprentices, the Taiwanaccustomed Tong Wing Cheong and the West-trained IT specialist Ong Ching-yin, were also displayed. While Tong stuck to the traditional mould, Ong infused Western elements into his work with mythic idioms. Interestingly, Ong’s involvement glosses over the gender bias often associated with such trades.

Yeap’s piece de resistance was a carved statue in gilded sarsaparilla wood of Duke Hui Ze, the patron saint of the Ye (Yeap) clan, emblazoned with the title, “The Formidable and Heroic Lord Hui Ze” (30.5cm x 38cm x 56cm).

Historical records reveal that Duke Hui Ze was awarded the title of “Reverend Lord of Kind Compassion” (Hui Ze Sun Wang) by the Song Court for helping to repel invaders and for his valiant sacrifice in protecting the emperor against the Jin. Duke Hui Ze is seldom depicted as a single entity but astonishingly with all the trappings of a top-hierarchy celestial being, while better known deity pantheons are relegated under him: the Fu Lu Shou (Prosperity, Status and Longevity) and Four Heavenly Kings (second tier), Ne Zha (riding a dragon, third tier) and Pak Sien (the Eight Immortals) adorning the bottom panel!

What is important is that one must be spiritual and that the heart must be beautiful (pure). It is the face of the deity that one has no control over in that one can’t always get the likeness from a model sample.

Into the rigmarole come the usual menagerie of dragons and mythical lions resplendent with floral decor.

Duke Hui Ze was born in AD 1189 during the Chen Xi period of the Song, and his birthday on the 10th day of the 12th lunar month is celebrated mainly by the Ye clansmen. A big temple called the Yunshan Si (Cloudy Temple Mountain) has been built in the Linyun Mountains above Gaotian Village, in Nan’An (Southern Peace), south-east Quanzhou City in Fujian, 97km from Xiamen.

He is depicted ensconced in an armchair in imperial robes, with one hand holding on to the robe’s upper belt and the other resting on his left knee. His legs are propped on leg rests. A crown hat is often on his head, sometimes with a real jade emblem placed to the middle.

He has popping eyes, but why is his face either in red or black?

“The original version of Lord Hui Ze showed him with a red face, but his face was blackened by the smoke and grime. When it came time to create a replacement, clan elders decreed that everything could be recreated except the colour of his face, which remains black to this day,” says Yeap

Yeap himself was born there, migrating with his mother to Penang only in 1959. It was Duke Hui Ze that launched his career path as a wood craftsman when he could not find or buy any statue of the idol in his newly adopted home. In 1970 he started carving one from scratch. The rest is history. He became proficient in carving religious pantheons such as Ma Zu, Tua Pek Kong, Goddess of Mercy (Avalokitesvara), Kwan Kong and Kew Long Yeah (Nine Emperor Gods).

Much is left to his interpretation, although he has to follow folklore, oral history, superstition and, on odd occasions, rituals, while in some instances, idols and patterns have been indigenised.

Ong with some of her works.

The historical and cultural changes of trades are well researched and explicated in the book After Migration and Religious Affiliations: Religious Chinese Identities and Transnational Network (World Scientific Publishing Co Pte Ltd), edited by Tan Chee Beng. PAPA provides occasional lessons on trades like rattan-weaving, beaded-slippers sewing and kebaya embroidery. Workshops and sales are organised on alternate months to perpetuate the traditional crafts as well as generate sustainable income. In a Malay Mail report on June 6, Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng announced a RM9.7mil project to build a centre for traditional arts and the creative industry on Lebuh Victoria.

Although it has been said that only wood types such as camphor, plar, jujube and longan are ideal for religious figures, Yeap does not agree.

“What is important is that one must be spiritual and that the heart must be beautiful (pure),” he says. “It is the face of the deity that one has no control over in that one can’t always get the likeness from a model sample.” True enough. The face of Guan Yin Pusa is the most challenging, for one has to show beauty and grace, and get an aura of compassion by tilting the head ever so slightly and gently as if it is showering blessings on the devotee.

Xiao Wan Zi in a backdrop of auspicious clouds and with the respective emblems of the Eight Immortal pantheons.

Yeap himself prefers to work with jelutong wood (Dyera costulata), medang (Cinnaomum porrectum), meranti (Shorea spp) and ersawa (Anisoptera marginata) – all found in abundance in the tropical jungles.

“For soft patterns, any wood will do,” he says. He says that for furniture, meranti wood is ideal. But he stresses the need for a sharp tool. Modern paints are safe, more easily available and practical, while old paints made from natural resins are usually smelly and can be poisonous.

His carving repertoire includes auspicious doorway signage and side plaques with the stocks of meanders, vines, swirls, bat or dragon motifs; deities’ sedan chairs; elaborate screens; furniture; and artworks.

His expertise is much sought after, especially in Taoist and Buddhist temples in Penang, Ipoh and KL, and in 1973 he was commissioned to do carved furnishings like carved pillars and signages for the Yap Temple in Armenian Street (the idol of Duke Hui Ze there was done probably in 1954, not by him).

Inscriptions of the Household Gods – Heaven, Kitchen and Earth. Meranti wood.

Interestingly, when asked how Yeap reconciles with the Hui Ze icon becoming a commercial product and torn from its religious moorings, Yeap says that he has no qualms about it, as the Hui Ze statue functions just as well as a finely crafted decor piece.

Yeap also provides geomancy consultancy.

Malaysia’s other communities also have their own distinctive characteristics where wood carvings are concerned. There are the raw productions of the Jah Hut aborigines and the more polished mythic versions of the Mah Meri of Carey Island; the imposing Kelirieng (burial posts) of Sarawak; the stupa, jentayu, garuda, religious idols and Kamasutra erotic spectrums of the Indians; and the arabesque, stylised patterns and non-living Islamic manifestations of the Malays.

Whether related to identity, symbol, status or aesthetics, the diverse woodcarving traditions of different groups point to a rich heritage that may continue to exist as sacrosanct entities or evolve with cross-pollination and transnational transformations over time and in different climes.

Hacking knives, flat knives, detailing tools, gouge, V-tool and Sloyd knives.

Ooi Kok Chuen is the author of the just-released novel, MAHSURI – A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary fantasy spun from a local legend

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