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The Sun Sets on Jalan Besar Craftsmen

By Guan Tan

The Machinist

Henry Yee turns 69 this year. His father founded an automobile parts workshop in the 1950s. In 1965, a teenage Yee dropped out of school to lend a hand to the business. Back then, the automobile after-sales market was booming. Car craftsmen like Yee and family were kept busy. 

In the 1960s, British cars like Morris Motors and Austin were all the rage. Later in the eighties came the Japanese – Toyota and Nissan. As the trends ebbed and flowed, Yee continually acquired new auto parts from these brands. Till date, he still has these nuggets of time kept in rusted biscuit tins. 

In a landmark shift for the automobile industry, the Certificate of Entitlement (COE) was introduced in 1990 "to control the number of cars on the island". When the 10 years long entitlement expires, car owners are often encouraged to scrap their vehicles for newer models. Yee's business took a major blow, as cars are seldom stretched to longevity, and are scrapped before they start wearing out. For the past two decades since, Yee's business dwindled as the demand for automobile repair nosedived. 

The MachinistLeft and right profile layouts of Yee's workshop.
Left and right profile layouts of Yee's workshop.

For over 60 years, the workshop stood on Jalan Besar Road. While the hackneyed shutters still open and draw every working day and night, Yee knows he will soon close them for them for good.

A petering demand aside, there's an even bigger problem for Yee. There's no successor. It's a conundrum – while he took over the business from his father, Yee is unwilling to hand it down to his children. The same goes for the wider crafts community of Jalan Besar – carpenters Wayman Enterprise, automobile dealers Chip Lian Autoparts, marine hardware traders Seng Hoe Co., and ship repair company Kwong Soon Engineering Co.. Out of them all, only one firm has appointed a successor. 

A mini documentary accompanies the launch of 'The Machinist', a book highlighting the dwindling of handicraft trades in the Jalan Besar district.


When three design and arts lecturers at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts caught wind of this urgent predicament, they launched into a two-year-long documentary. Artist Xin Xiaochang, jewellery designer Yuki Mitsuyasu, and industrial designer Wendy Chua repeatedly spent days at Yee's workshop. 

"Many of these craftsmen do not want their children to follow in their footsteps... They would rather their children be more highly educated and find a job in the comforts of an air-conditioned office," Chua explains. 

The Machinist69-year-old second generation automobile repairman pictured in the background with the three co-authors in the workshop.
69-year-old second generation automobile repairman pictured in the background with the three co-authors in the workshop.

The dearth of the automobile repair industry weighs heavy in the hearts of the three designers. They believe in the gravity of arts and crafts in any society. "From a design educator's point of view, there are fewer makers that design students can collaborate with," Chua adds. 

The phenomenon also makes handwork increasingly irrelevant in popular culture. What it signifies is perhaps not merely the displacement of an industrialised workforce in favour of a white-collar workforce. It is pointing to an upcoming generation of Singaporeans unaware and unexposed to arts and crafts. 

That being said, Chua clarifies that she is not merely referring to the trendy "DIY craft workshops". Those one-off hobbies "cannot be compared to these old artisans who have dedicated their entire lives to mastering a skill." 

The MachinistPages from 'The Machinist'.
Pages from 'The Machinist'.
The MachinistThe book is now available at S$45. The gold embossed title spells 'The Machinist', from Yee's many small autoparts.
The book is now available at S$45. The gold embossed title spells 'The Machinist', from Yee's many small autoparts.

Yee does not explicitly express his intentions to retire, but to the trio it's clear. Yee will soon close his workshop in a few years' time. "As in most gentrified neighbourhoods, the shophouse would be cleared out when new tenants move in." While Yee's future seems uncertain, the three co-authors have urgently preserved this slice of cultural history. 

Their two-year-long documentary has been surmised into a book titled 'The Machinist'. It pivots around the trade of Henry Yee, and later explores the stories of neighbouring automobile craftsmen. "At the heart of it, this book looks towards the future, questioning the relevance of craft in an Industry 4.0 and a world dominated by [Artificial Intelligence] and robots." Chua considers, "What do we delegate to technology and what do we hold back?" 

'The Machinist' is available on themachinist.sg, and at Yee's workshop, Hup Yick Engineering Works, 84 Horne Road at S$45.