Where Gods Are Born
This week I had a golden opportunity to explore a bit of Singaporean cultural history with a dear friend. Pam was visiting me from California and we both attended the World EduLead Conference. An incredible event that left us energized and framed so much of what we do and hope to accomplish in education. I have a series of upcoming posts reflecting on my experience in the works, but thought I would first write about an experience we shared that was truly unforgettable.
Audrey and I use AirBnB quite often when we travel. We find it less expensive than hotels and most offer nice amenities that make us feel at home. Several travel related sites have tapped into the AirBnB model of locals sharing their homes and making a few bucks. They have also branched out into offering “experiences” by locals where you pay a few bucks to partake in an activity led by one or more budding entrepreneurs. Most riff off of the idea of a local taking you on a tour centered around a culturally relatable activity like food and beverage, music, and local history being the top three. Occasionally someone comes up with an idea that really stands out.
I signed Pam and I up for what was described as a “studio visit,” but it is really an afternoon spent with a warm and caring, multi-generational family of artisans in their workshop in Chinatown. They have been creating Taoist deities (effigies) for over 100 years and the family is headed by the revered matriarch and grandmother, Tan Chwee Lian. Her wonderful grandsons provided the insights and directed the nearly 3-hour session, but make no mistake, Mdm. Tan Chwee Lian was the star.
We were warmly welcomed by the entire family that included Madam Tan and her son and his wife, two grandsons, and two adorable great-granddaughters. With smiles on their faces they invited us into their shop where we took a seat and introduced ourselves. Ten is the maximum number than can sign up for this visit and I have a feeling this sells out whenever it is offered. After introductions we were given an outline for the afternoon and then proceeded to participate in a scavenger hunt around the shop. Each of us were given four photos of deities and asked to locate them on the shelves and countertops in the shop.
After we managed to locate them all, each deity’s identity, physical characteristics, and origin story was made known to us and the wooded statues were passed around, revealing the exquisite details applied to each. As a history teacher I greatly enjoyed the storytelling as it was so relatable to human origin stories coming from many cultures.
We then had the opportunity to learn how each was carved and what kinds of wood were used for each part. It was explained that today many of the effigies are made by machines, but that is not the case here. The work done in this shop is by hand, from the carving and painting, to the delicate application of clay-like material to emboss the details.
The star of the afternoon then got a chance to share what her life was like growing up and how she learned how to run the family business. She described her marriage and shared with us her beautiful wedding certificate while relating who was in attendance. She described how she was able to raise 7 children and still managed to create many of the hundreds of effigies that have come out of this studio. It was delightful to listen to her describe, with great detail, what her life has been like. One of her grandsons respectfully translated for us.
The afternoon continued with a hands-on activity. We each received a piece of paper on a clipboard and, as the matriarch began to draw a stylized dragon, we were each encouraged to create our own version. Next, we learned about applying a rolled clay ribbon onto each deity. This gives a 3D embossed affect when it hardens. We then proceeded to a station where we attempted to recreate the technique ourselves on a note-card sized piece of wood. It was an intense sensory experience and required deep focus and patience. The family offered us words of encouragement and gentle assistance when we became frustrated. The two great-granddaughters supplied us with refreshments as we labored to replicate what we witnessed grandma accomplish.
When finished, we received our final lesson. A small wooded frame was provided and small packets of gold leaf. I attempted to delicately apply mine and learned how to “polish” it to give it a nice luster.
We both felt that we had experienced something deeply enriching. It easily tops the list of wonderful events I’ve been able to experience here in Singapore and I can’t recommend it highly enough to future visitors. It is not held very often, but worthy of planning a schedule around it. You can discover more by visiting their page on AirBnB and you can see more of the incredible work they do on their website. This wonderful and inspiring family are artisans that will welcome you with smiles, dazzle you with stories, and gift you with an opportunity to enrich your life and warm your soul.