One hundred and thirty years is a long time for anything – whether it's a tattered photograph of an ancestor, a quaint historical structure earmarked for conservation, or simply a name that carries a legacy. When that name is attached to a rich history that spans four generations and the ever-changing face of a metropolis that keeps on growing and evolving, it comes with a special sense of pride and responsibility.
Yong Yoon Li, the executive director of Royal Selangor International – previously known as Selangor Pewter, and before that, the pewtersmith at 23 Cross Street, Kuala Lumpur – is founder Yong Koon’s great grandson. He joined the company in 2005.
During our interview between conference calls at the Royal Selangor Visitor’s Centre in Setapak, Yoon Li is pleasant, amicable and focused – but solely on the brand. “There are only two things I don’t do: talk about business and talk about myself,” he replies candidly at suggestions of writing about him.
This year, Royal Selangor celebrates 130 years in the pewter business, which grew in tandem with KL as it transformed into a city. To commemorate this milestone, the company is adding the 8515 collection to the range of tableware, gift items, homeware and personal accessories that fill their stores.
“It's nice being so much a part of history. KL was built on tin in the 1800s; not only in trading but also tin mining, with the Chinese immigrants that fuelled the industry. My great-grandfather the pewtersmith, his little workshop and the village of Kuala Lumpur grew together to become what they are today,” Yoon Li says.
Yoon Li’s great-grandfather sailed from Shantou, China to Kuala Lumpur, excited by the booming tin industry, and later ventured into making pewter incense burners, joss-stick holders and candle-stands for the altars of wealthy tin miners and Chinese temples.
A few original pieces from this time, handmade by Yong Koon, remain in the family – the melon pot which sits in a glass case display in the visitor centre found its way back into the fold when, by chance, a worker from the company was cleaning it for the then-owner.
It was returned to the family when it was discovered that it was indeed an original created by the founder – Yong Koon stamped each of his products with the mark “Yu He Zu Xi”, “Yu He” or Jade Peace was the name of the shop, and “Zu Xi” or pure tin reflected the high quality of the material used.
Other pieces that bear these hallmarks are a couple of incense burners in a Chinese temple just off Petaling Street, one of the oldest temples in the city, built by Yap Ah Loy, best known for turning KL into a commercial and mining centre.
Pewter's new attitude
While Royal Selangor International has remained true to its DNA in terms of craftsmanship, materials and operations, changes were made seven years ago to breathe new life into the business.
“We took a look at how the brand was perceived and the value of the brand,” says Yoon Li. “How did our products reflect the brand? How did people view us? We were surprised to hear that we were viewed as quite an old brand. Maybe if you put an age to us, we would be a 55-year-old guy.”
NEXT PAGE: Read more about how Yoon Li breathed new life into Royal Selangor.