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The Craft of the Machinists

A new book tells the stories of the last generation of industrial craftspeople in Jalan Besar, and investigates the histories and futures of craft.

The Craft of the Machinists

Metal craftsman Yee Chin Hoon. Photography by Rebecca Toh

For several years, designer Wendy Chua has been building a working relationship, and a friendship, with Yee Chin Hoon – the last auto-parts machinist in the auto-repair district of Jalan Besar, and a skilled craftsman nearing retirement. His Horne Road workshop, Hup Yick Engineering Works, is both a functional space for metal work and a document of a craft at risk of extinction in Singapore.

In 2015, Chua relayed Yee’s story to her fellow lecturers at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, designers Xin Xiaochang and Yuki Mitsuyasu. Subsequently, the trio collaborated with him on a two-week design workshop to create jewellery pieces from his vintage stock and metal shavings, and exhibited the results inside the workshop.

They spent the following two years documenting the stories of Jalan Besar’s community of industrial craftspeople and tradespeople, using the lens of design. They aimed to shed light on how these individuals come to dedicate their entire lives to mastering a skill, and in the process, they questioned the meaning of craft in a rapidly changing urban context.

Now their labour has reached fruition in the form of a strikingly beautiful self-published book. The Machinist tells the stories of the last generation of industrial craftspeople and spare parts dealers in Jalan Besar – from Yee, to carpenter SK Phua (Wayman Enterprise), to naval engineering pioneer Louis Ching (Kwong Soon Engineering Co.) and more.

Interviews and essays explore themes such as the philosophy of the craftsperson, new (robotic) means of crafting, intellectual property and sharable design, and vintage cars in Singapore. And delightful plan and section drawings (painstakingly created by hand) document the rich tapestries of machines, shelves, boxes and tools that create the unique character of each workshop space. All these various forms of documentation provide a rare glimpse into spaces that are otherwise less readily open for exploration.

To celebrate the public launch of the book this weekend (22-23 July 2017), Yee’s workshop will be open for a tour. Visitors who purchase the book will also be invited on a self-guided tour of the neighbourhood to see some of the other craftsmen in the community at work. On Sunday, the Mini King racer William Lyou, one of the team who restored the oldest indigenous Rolls-Royce, will be at Hup Yick Engineering Works with his vintage Austin 7 Mini. 

The Machinist was edited by Wendy Chua, Xin Xiaochang and Yuki Mitsuyasu. The book design was by Pharaon Siraj, and photography was by Rebecca Toh. Essays were contributed by Justin Zhuang and Lin Renyu. It was produced with the support of the National Heritage Board and is currently available from Hup Yick Engineering Works and

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