There is a saying that one man’s garbage is another man’s gold. And Klang-based retiree Michael Yiew is a man with this sort of midas touch.
He collects things that other people discard and transforms them into works of art. The display cabinets in his living room are filled to the brim with his creations which he builds using scrap materials salvaged from local junkyards.
Most of his days are spent tinkering in his outdoor studio, working on his latest project. Once he starts on one, Yiew admits he can get so caught up with it that he loses track of time.
“I can spend up to five hours working on a project, and even forget about eating and drinking. And I also get sleepless nights, just because I've not found a solution for a snag in my latest project, ” laments Yiew, 69.
His very first project was a superbike he envisioned after watching a Terminator movie some 25 years ago.
“I started on it while I was still working, using all my mealtimes. Lunch was 40 minutes and tea was 15 minutes. So while others went off for their lunch break, I would be soldering and welding all the parts together.
"Guess what the fuel tank is made of? A pair of spoons that I welded together! It was such a challenging project, yet so exciting. Not only were the wheels free-moving, my bike also had a working kickstand and kickstarter, ” says Yiew, beaming with pride.
His second project was even bigger and also inspired by another movie he watched, Titanic.
“It was a ship split in two, complete with people on board. I had to carefully break a piece of wood into two parts and work carefully on it so that the jagged edges could still meet.
“I started to design the ship after doing some research by watching videos on the Internet. Look at the lifebuoys. Can you tell what they are made of? Those are shirt buttons!”
An eye for aesthetics
Visiting the junkyard is like embarking on a treasure hunt for the mild-mannered retiree.“Sometimes, people give me things for free. Otherwise, I’ll trawl through the scrap heap and salvage bits and pieces of things that probably look like a bunch of random stuff to others. When I offer to pay for them, people would ask me what I intend to use the items for. Sometimes, I show them pictures of the things I make.”
So, what kinds of scraps does he look for?
“My favourite colour is gold, so I will collect scraps of copper, brass and bronze. I like anything that is shiny or sparkly. But sometimes, all it takes is a spot of rust remover, a bit of polishing or even a coat of paint to achieve the glossy effect that I want.
“That is why I prefer to pick up items with pretty patterns and unique shapes and textures including embossing and extrusions. So, I’ll collect anything from belt buckles and ball bearings to lighting fixtures and cuff links.”
During the interview, Yiew shows us a luxury yacht project, which he says is about 80% complete. “I started on this project when a friend said if I flipped a clothes iron upside down, it would look like a watercraft.
“But the problem was it kept tipping over due to a heavy metal plate that was weighing down the front of the yacht. So, I had to dismantle that, and add a counter weight to the base.”
But then for him, nothing is really 100% complete. There is always something he can do to improve each item. So, even a completed piece is like a work-in-progress.
For example, he is still on the lookout for a larger trumpet horn for his mini gramophone. "It needs to be slightly larger in size, so as to look more balanced in comparison to the box.”
Sometimes, he chances upon a new object that appears to be more suited to an item he considers done. He then revisits the project to modify the parts as he sees fit.
For instance, he was inspired to change the wheels to his locomotive model at one point.
“The wheels for the train engine were originally made from spotlights. Then I came across some aluminium jar lids and discovered that if I glued the tops of two together and painted them, they would look just like the real thing.”
Yiew already has an idea for his next project – a vintage rotary phone inspired by a Mr Bean movie he watched recently. Picking up an old shower head from a box filled with knick knacks, he began to describe how it could be used to make part of an antique telephone receiver.
Ideas came fast as he was rummaging through another box of trinkets. Putting together a rectangular metal plate and a cylindrical plastic tank, he began visualising the revolving drum of a concrete cement mixer truck and started putting together suitable items for yet another new project.
Tools and skills
While his raw materials may come at little to no cost, Yiew’s favourite pastime is by no means an inexpensive one.
He has an extensive collection of power tools to work with – cutter, sander, grinder, joiner – in addition to a wide selection of gadgets for finer craft work. Soldering, sawing, drilling, polishing and spray painting are only some of the skills required to work on his projects.
His workshop is a neat little corner tucked into the front porch of his single-storey terrace house in Klang.
Sitting outdoors during the day when everybody is out working, he uses his power tools on all sorts of materials: metal, wood, glass, ceramic and acrylic. Come evening, he moves indoors and works on quietly, gluing things in place.
Another key item in his arsenal of tools is multi-purpose reusable adhesive clay. He rolls up these colourful blobs and uses them to temporarily stick smaller parts onto his main project.
“I use this so that I can easily reposition accessories or try things on to see whether they look nice. It is very helpful because I can move pieces around until I am happy with the way things look before permanently gluing or welding them together.”
But more important than being handy with tools is his ability to deconstruct and reconstruct. Being able to visualise how to deconstruct an item to its smallest component helps him to identify treasure from trash, and enhances his ability to construct his elaborate projects.
This seemingly magical ability was actually honed from four decades of working at an auto assembly plant in Shah Alam. From age 18 to 58, he spent his time visualising how to assemble huge vehicles made from thousands of tiny parts.
Looking for fellow hobbyists
Now that he has such a wide-ranging collection, Yiew hopes to be able to host interactive exhibitions to showcase his creations where visitors will be allowed to handle each item.“I will personally provide some demonstrations in addition to presenting the history behind each piece.”
But most of all, after so many years of working alone on his projects, Yiew says he yearns to meet somebody who is doing something similar.
“Up until now, I have not met anybody who is doing the same thing. I really wish to find some like-minded friends with whom I can share ideas and engage in discussions.
“I hope to be able to embark on joint projects with a buddy and work on larger-scale working models that require the skills of more than one person.”
An artist friend who asked to borrow one of his creations – a Japanese triplane torpedo bomber – helped him set up an Instagram account (@studio.michael) to showcase his works.
One thing is for sure: His creations are not for sale. “Because of the way I source for raw materials, each piece is unique and cannot be replicated.”Yiew can be reached at facebook.com/michael.yiew.5 or call 017-651 8561.