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In Singapore, a Female Woodworker Who Breathes New Life Into Trees

By Lynette Kee

“Mothership” side table was one of Liew’s first furniture projects in 2017.
 
Liew Yuhua
“Mothership” side table was one of Liew’s first furniture projects in 2017.

Too many times, Liew Yuhua (@secretlifeoftrees) has been told not to get her hands dirty because she is a woman. But never once had she thought about throwing in the chisel. Liew is a professional woodworker who founded Secret Life of Trees in 2019, where she designs and crafts custom-made wooden objects from keepsakes to furniture.

In Singapore, jobs in design, building and construction, especially ones that require physical virility, are still mostly carried out by men. So while “gendered” professions are on the decline, stereotypes still remain. Often times, this reveals itself in the most unexpected yet ordinary ways. “In some of the cabinetry jobs I’ve done in the past, if the apartment is undergoing renovation, [going to the toilet might be problematic] because the doors have not been put in yet,” says Liew. “It feels kind of strange going to the toilet with a room full of men, without a door.”

COS top, $150 and Loro Piana trousers, $2,200. Muuto Loft chair, $660, available at Grafunkt.Woodworker, Liew Yuhua.
Woodworker, Liew Yuhua.

In 2016, Liew decided to free herself from her desk-bound job. For the next three years, she worked at local furniture restoration shops and carpentry shops before emptying out her savings to fund a course in furniture design, making and restoration at the Chippendale International School of Furniture in Scotland. That was where Liew began building a solid foundation in woodworking. She says, “Technical skill and experimentation was the most important to me then.”

Beyond her practice, Liew also took the time to soak in the natural landscape, encouraging her bond with organic material. “I stayed at the edge of the woods and took daily walks in the surrounding forests,” she reminisces. “Knowing that a healthy forest takes hundreds, even thousands, of years to develop makes you really cherish the material at hand.”

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by 華 / Hua (@secretlifeoftrees_) on

 

Later, Liew took up an apprenticeship in Canada with John Thompson, a seasoned designer and woodworker. After six months, she was finally able to ground her technical abilities and create pieces independently. She says, “The stint in Canada gave me confidence in my skills and ability as a craftsperson.” For all the times Liew was told to stay away from machinery and stick to administrative work, she was finally able to dispose of the conventional label and hold her own.

“When I first started, I didn’t have a role model or mentor here that I felt I could seek help from — it is [also] especially hard to get good business advice from a craft perspective,” she admits. Growing up in a modern, evolving metropolis that is Singapore, traditional crafting is a distant, esoteric concept, energised only by a small community of craftsmen — much less women. But with her craft, where she focuses on giving nature second life, Liew has become one more unifying thread of this community.

Liew’s artistic direction usually stems from emotion: A recycled spark she would get reminiscing about the times when she would climb trees and sit in branches to read or draw as a child, or feeling helpless while pondering the fragility of our environment. For Liew, “thoughtfully created objects give meaning to space” and her creations are the result of her headspace and her nimble hands aligning. Her works span abstract tabletops and chairs that could easily pass as sculptural art to homeware that is characteristically quirky. “My dream project would be to build a home from scratch as an art piece, to work on the framing, roofing and construction of the house. I would like to design the interior and make each and every piece of furniture, down to shaping every doorknob by hand,” she says.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by 華 / Hua (@secretlifeoftrees_) on

 

On the value of her art, Liew believes in the idea of mutual trust between her and her clients. “My customers are people who appreciate the material, my process and the way I build,” she shares. “I have learnt that people who value me and my work will be willing to pay the price I ask. I am no longer interested in trying to convince anyone. I hustle in other ways so that I can earn enough to reject the jobs I do not wish to take on.” In that way, Liew is able to slowly and precisely create something that is true to her brand.

Photograph by Gregory Woo
Styling by Michelle Kok
Hair by Christvian Goh (ARX Salon)
Makeup by Wee Ming using Shu Uemura
Clothing: COS top, S$150, and Loro Piana trousers, S$2,200.
Props: Muuto Loft chair, S$660, available at Grafunkt.