He spent more than 70 years tending to Har Par Villa sculptures
As Singapore rushes towards being a Smart Nation, what happens to those in dying trades? SHERLYN SIM meets three such Singaporeans struggling to remain relevant in an ever-changing landscape
When he started at 13, Mr Teo Veoh Seng was the youngest of four artisans at Haw Par Villa.
But for the longest time, the 84-year-old was the only artisan tending to over 1,000 Chinese mythology sculptures in the Asian cultural park.
He told The New Paper: "I am getting old now and I cannot carry on working at a height to maintain the sculptures."
From repairing cracks in the mermaid statues to painting the gory sculptures in The Ten Courts of Hell, maintaining the park alone began to take a toll on his body after he hit his 70s.
He said: "Climbing has affected (my legs) a lot. In the past, I used to build scaffolding and climb to the top easily, but now, my health does not allow me to climb, squat and stand up frequently.
"My children wanted me to retire as they were worried that I might fall. They said I have been working long enough and it is time to take a rest now."
But Mr Teo found little success at finding an apprentice to take over the trade.
My children wanted me to retire as they were worried that I might fall. They said I have been working long enough and it is time to take a rest now.Mr Teo Veoh Seng
Even his eight children, aged between 61 and 47, are reluctant to follow in his footsteps.
"Many young Singaporeans prefer working in an air-conditioned environment (and) would not want to do this kind of laborious job," he said.
Over the past six years, he saw three university graduates quit abruptly after a couple of days of training as they could not bear the heat and labour.
To his relief, Haw Par Villa and Mr Teo finally found suitable apprentices from China- Mr Chen Jin Long, 51, from Fujian and Mr Zhang Hua Bing, 31, from Anshan. And with their entry came his exit - Mr Teo officially retired last year, after passing on his knowledge to the two men.
Mr Teo's journey of finding a successor was documented by Singapore-based American director and photographer Craig McTurk, 53, over two years.
Mr McTurk said that the documentary, The Last Artisan, is due to premiere later this year.
While Mr Teo can finally take a break, he is still not ready to part with his second home - he still goes back once a week to check on his apprentices.
He said: "I do not know what to do after I retire, and I cannot be watching television all day at home. Since I am still mobile, I might as well continue guiding my apprentices at Haw Par Villa."
Owners fired up to keep dragon kiln alive
For the past 53 years, Mr Tan Teck Yoke and his family have been striving to keep the 78-year-old dragon kiln at Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle in Jalan Bahar alive.
But with their land lease expiring in 2023, Mr Tan, the managing director of the pottery jungle, is worried.
He said: "It will be impossible to rebuild the kiln and the history would be gone along with it. If people do not see value in the kiln and our craft, I think our efforts for the past two to three generations would be wasted."
Built in 1940, the 36m-long wood-fired kiln was bought over by Mr Tan's mother, Madam Kwan Yew Lin, 82, and her late husband in 1965.
The pottery jungle is now run by Mr Tan, 62, and his niece and studio manager Stella Tan, 27.
Due to the size of the dragon kiln, it is fired only when there are about 3,000 clay pieces, which is about two to three times a year instead of three to five times a month during its peak in 1970.
Unlike electronic and gas kilns, firing pottery at 1,260 deg C for three days using the dragon kiln requires experience and skill. The art pieces must be placed in the kiln carefully so the flame can flow through, and the colour of the flame must be watched as it determines the temperature.
If people do not see value in the kiln and our craft, I think our efforts for the past two to three generations would be wasted.Mr Tan Teck Yoke
Said Mr Tan: "Depending on the different woods and temperatures in the kiln as well as where the pottery is placed, you can get a special ash effect that is one of a kind. You cannot get this effect anywhere else, and this is one part of the culture we need to preserve."
Miss Tan is determined to continue preserving the craft.
In 2014, she started organising educational tours of the kiln and pottery workshops for children and adults in hopes of modernising the business.
She said: "I saw the efforts the second-generation owners put in to preserve the kiln so I felt responsible for passing down this legacy.
"Besides, I love pottery and I see potential in the business."
She added: "This trade is tough and not stable because of the lease, but it will be a waste if no one takes over the business. Nonetheless, this is a part of culture that is dear to me."
He leads a snake-charmed life
Mr Yusof Kassim used to have up to six snake-charming performances a day at hotels, community clubs and events.
But today, the 54-year-old, who believes he is the last snake charmer in Singapore, hardly performs the traditional Indian folk art even once a month.
Mr Kassim said with a sigh: "Snake charming's popularity is long gone. Now, people prefer song-and-dance entertainment instead of our shows."
The third generation of a family of snake charmers, he has trained under his father since he was six years old and won third prize in snake-charming competition Festival Ular in Malaysia in 2007.
Now, Mr Kassim performs about 10 shows a year. For the past 20 years, he also has a full-time job at Sentosa where guests can pose with his albino and Burmese pythons. He has a licence from the Agri-Food Veterinary Authority for the snakes, which measure at over 2m each.
Mr Kassim fears that snake charming might disappear in Singapore by the next decade.
He said: "This is an art form with a rich history and culture. It will be heartbreaking to know that this art cannot be preserved."
Snake charming is my passion and love. This trade was passed down from two generations, and I do not want to give up so easily.Mr Yusof Kassim
Snake charming is more than a job for Mr Kassim, it also led him to meet his wife - he apprenticed for her father, who is also a snake charmer.
Ironically, his wife is afraid of the reptiles and his four children, aged 26 to 19, are not keen to follow in his footsteps.
"My son told me he is not interested as there is no future in this line. Snake charmers do not get a fixed income and it is a laborious job standing for five to six hours a day.
"If it rains, my outdoor shows are cancelled too," he added.
Mr Kassim earns an average of $15,000 a year. However, his performances may be called off if audience members are too frightened of the reptiles.
Despite the hurdles faced, Mr Kassim intends to continue performing until he retires.
A Sentosa Development Corporation spokesman told The New Paper that Sentosa still engages Mr Kassim as an effort to "curate unique offerings that make guests' visits fun and memorable... by watching a rare snake-charming performance or getting up close to and take photos with a snake".
Mr Kassim said: "Snake charming is my passion and love. This trade was passed down from two generations, and I do not want to give up so easily."