IN THE HANDS OF A FEW
In the technologically urban glass-and-steel city that defines modern Singapore, there still exists a handful of people who work with their hands to passionately craft personalised products that hark back to an earlier time.
Singapore’s skyline of steel and glass was the product of a young nation kicking into survival mode. To turn the island with scant natural resources into a viable country, it embarked upon a strategy that focused on labour-intensive industrialisation.
Over time, this shifted from labour-intensive manufacturing to capital-intensive, high-technology programmes involving automation — from the production of textiles, toys and wigs to wafer fabrication and biotechnology.
In this tale of beating the odds in one generation, some people were invariably left behind. The craftsmen who worked on making their wares by hand soon found their place swiftly replaced by a perfectly formed, cheaper product. They were forced to throw down their tools and find gainful employment in other sectors, or throw up their hands in despair and opt for early retirement.
But, on occasion, amongst the monoliths that loom over the growing masses, you can find a sliver of time trapped in the hands of a shoemaker who still invests skill and energy in each last he crafts. Or in a quiet environment where no machinery moves at blinding speed as a luthier puts the perfect sound together. Or where deft handiwork brings leather to new life and form.
Ironically, the march of time and progress has resulted in a greater appreciation of things that are crafted by hand, and a small number of artisans do carve out their own niches with a following.
While efficiency and consistency have been imperatives in driving Singapore’s economy, there exists a market for bespoke products that is a cut above the rest; where products are crafted instead of manufactured. Be it a hand-stitched wallet made from selected leather or a custom guitar made by a luthier who isn’t desperately trying to hit a quota.
"If we’re not adoptingtechnology to improve what we are doing, we are only falling behind."
From mail order DIY guitar kits Ho Zen Yong decided to manufacture his own guitars under the Maestro brand. But Hozen, as he is commonly known, had to contend with poor-quality parts, and compounded with the lack of skilled craftsmen in Singapore, he decided to establish his workshop in China.
“I know a couple of good craftsmen over there so I approached them and told them we were only going to craft high-quality, high-end instruments,” says Hozen.
The process begins by importing various woods like mahogany and cedar to Singapore where Hozen tests them for suitable acoustic qualities before shipping them to China.
“I have my own workshop there, where I get to call the shots and do things the way I want them done. My approach to guitar making is very meticulous.”
The guitar is then shipped back to Singapore where the final steps like fret levelling, fingerboard tuning and stringing are done. While Hozen uses all-natural hide glue which transmits sound better than chemical glues, he isn’t one to disregard technological advancements altogether.
“While there are certain steps you don’t use machines to do, like selecting the right kind of wood, the neck needs to be perfect and a machine can do it more consistently than a person could. If we’re not adopting technology to improve what we are doing, we are only falling behind,” he reckons.
“An experienced guitarist will be able to appreciate the difference between our instruments and machine-made ones. There’s a finer note and elegance in our workmanship. It takes experience to appreciate our instrument.
“I will do anything to make sure my guitars sound good. This is my relentless pursuit of perfection.”
Maestro instruments are used by musicians around the world and range in price from S$499-$10,000.
Childhood friends James Dung and Johnny Low first started out with leather crafting as a hobby. “Johnny was trying out leather crafting in Singapore and introduced me to it when I was living in France,” explains James. The pair picked up the craft online from leather crafting forums.
When James returned to Singapore, the pair founded Obbi Good Label as well as Atelier Lodge, a leather crafting school. Obbi Good Label offers a customised product.
“Our wallets are made by craftsmen and not on a factory assembly line. You can be sure that you’re paying for something that someone put all of his effort into crafting,” says James.
The quality of Obbi Good Label’s wallets is apparent from the moment you hold one. The cuts are precise, stitching tight and the leather itself is thick, but supple. James whipped out his own wallet to show how nicely the leather has turned after years of use.
The advantage of a small label allows James and Johnny full control over their leather crafting with the freedom to address any problems or make improvements as soon as inspiration strikes.
The challenge for the duo is to try and get people to understand why they are paying so much for a locally crafted wallet without an established brand. “Selling something handcrafted in Singapore is very difficult because the layman doesn’t understand why our wallets can be worth over $200. They would rather buy one at the mall for $50. They don’t understand that our wallets are built to last 20 to 30 years,” says James.
The label’s subsidiary, Atelier Lodge was set up due to a growing interest among hobbyists in the art of leather crafting. While interest is growing, James does not think many people would be interested in turning this hobby into a profession. “It takes a lot of time and effort to produce something that is sold with a small margin. This isn’t a very profitable business,” he explains.
They produce about 100 wallets a month.
Obbi Good Label offers a range of handcrafted leather products, including belts, key fobs and wallets. Their flagship wallet, the Condor, retails for US$180.
Walking The Talk
What began as a short-term stint in his brother’s shoe repair shop sparked Edwin Neo’s passion for shoe making.
“I began reading and practicing what I learnt from books and online forums and tutorials, and for around four years I slowly taught myself the art of shoemaking, all while still working out of my tiny shoe repair counter,” explains Edwin.
This culminated in a journey to Budapest, Hungary, where Edwin began a 15-day apprenticeship with master shoemaker Marcell Mrsan. After his apprenticeship, he went on to start his own company, Ed Et Al.
Edwin wants to do more than put leather between foot and floor.
“I developed a passion for shoes and the craft of making them, and with it a desire to create something beautiful. As I researched more about the history of shoemaking in Singapore, I was also determined to revive interest in the industry,” he says.
Edwin believes there’s a discerning market for traditionally crafted footwear.
“Singapore is still not known for heritage crafts and for this reason there are still people who doubt the quality that we can deliver. I believe that with time we will be able to change this perception,” Edwin reckons.
With most Singaporeans eager to jump right into the paper chase in search for corner offices and five-figure salaries, it would seem unlikely that there would be any interest in the art of shoemaking. “It is mostly hobbyists who contact me, but I have received emails from people who are interested to make this a career. There may be hope yet!
“Our workshop has an apprenticeship system where aspiring shoemakers are taught the craft, and not have to go through the same kind of learning curve that I did.”
Ed Et Al shoes are priced from $349, and accessories are priced upwards of $160.