Star2 Monthly Challenge: Malacca, where some old trades are still alive ... for now


Though Chin used to help with forging ships’ anchor chains, and even the anchors, these days people come with individual orders for parangs and choppers (pictured), or makeshift construction tools.

Story and photos by VINCENT TAN

It will truly be a black day when the last blacksmith on Blacksmith Street (present name: Jalan Tukang Besi) stops operating. For then the street in Malacca’s Heritage Quarter (the area that includes Jonker Street) will have truly lost the meaning behind it.

This I found out when doing the Star2 Monthly Challenge for Travel that was posed to me by a colleague. I decided to focus on the people rather than food or attractions, because they are also unique and special to the locality.

Even up till the 1980s, Chin Chim Sin, 70, remembers the street having as many as seven smithies, all friends of his.

Every single one has passed away or retired since. This includes Chin’s late brother with whom he ran the store for a number of years.

“The shop next to mine also used to be a smithy too, run by two brothers,” Chin gestured to a shuttered shop on his left. Looking up from the street level, this writer could see the old structure’s roof falling to pieces.

Chin was 12 years old when he started learning the blacksmith’s trade from his great-grandfather Chin Wing Lee, whose name is on the board hanging above the small smithy’s entrance.

Though Chin used to help with forging ships’ anchor chains, and even the anchors, these days people come with individual orders for parangs and choppers (pictured), or makeshift construction tools.
Though Chin used to help with forging ships’ anchor chains, and even the anchors, these days people come with individual orders for parangs and choppers (pictured), or makeshift construction tools.

“I also went out to learn my trade from the smiths who did business in Bukit Cina, then came back to help out at the family shop,” he explained tersely in Mandarin.

These days, Chin runs his smithy just to fill his days, as none of his brother’s children are interested in taking up the trade.

“People still come to me with jobs, such as this chopper which I’m grinding now to give it its edge,” the smith gestured at the billhook he had been grinding with a power tool.

His forge is a small affair, suitable for making small items. Not surprisingly, his customers’ requests are commonly for items such as the billhook, kitchen knife or parang, which can be easily forged.

Nearby, a small bucket of yellow clay mixed with sand is used to repair the forge whenever it’s damaged. Rather than the water trough we imagine is used for quenching the red-hot steel, his water quenching is a small hole in the shop’s floor near the forge.

Chin also uses mineral oil for quenching, although he only pours the oil out whenever he’s about to begin smithing.

It’s a far cry from the time when he and his predecessors helped forge ships’ anchor chains on the 100-year-old anvil, which, Chin claims, was imported from England by way of Singapore.

Every now and then, contractors would also come to him with requests to reshape their steel reinforcing bars (rebar) for construction purposes.

Chin pulled out one such rebar, – it had been fashioned into a spike on one side to drive into the soil, while the other side would also be reworked, into a spade-like shape, according to the rough plans he had drawn up.

An Iranian man had helped him with the first part of the job, Chin said, and he was waiting for the same person to come back from Kuala Lumpur to help out with the second part.

“Usually the items I work on, like a parang or knife, cost about RM100-plus to make, because it takes one steel bar for me to forge. This rebar tool will cost about RM300,” he said.

Chin still carries on the trade that his great-grandfather started in Blacksmith Street, but some modernity is inevitable, like the power grinder he uses to give this chopper its edge.
Chin still carries on the trade that his great-grandfather started in Blacksmith Street, but some modernity is inevitable, like the power grinder he uses to give this chopper its edge.

From a metal shelf, Chin takes out a 15-inch (38cm) parang, which is nearly complete and all he has to do is to fit the rat-tail tang the back portion of a tool which is connected to a handle) with its plastic handle.

“Usually these items take me about two to three days to complete. It’s hard to properly pound the moulten steel into shape as the hammer I can wield with one hand is not heavy enough for the job,” he said.

“It does get lonely when all your friends are gone. No local wants to learn the trade anymore, but the Iranian man showed interest, so I let him help me,” said Chin.

Buckets and barrels

Through the winding pedestrian backlanes which connect the different roads in the Heritage Quarter, Chan Cheok Thiam quietly plies his trade making wooden buckets and barrels next to Hang Jebat’s Mausolem along Kampung Kuli.

The 88-year-old cycles every morning from his house in Ujong Pasir to Kampung Kuli, and works from 10am till 2pm.

“Often, on my way, I’ll head to the construction sites or wherever they are doing renovation, to see if I can salvage the wooden planks they’re throwing out.

“If they’re throwing out the hardwood, which runs from brown to reddish, that sort is good for making barrels,” he said.

Chan applying some varnish to the metal hoop which helps hold the bucket in place. It usually takes him about two days to complete a bucket.
Chan applying some varnish to the metal hoop which helps hold the bucket in place. It usually takes him about two days to complete a bucket.

Sometimes, all he manages to salvage is rubber wood, which Chan said is not suitable for his original craft, so he turns these into simple furniture such as stools and benches.

“It often takes me about two days to make one barrel,” he said, applying the finishing metal paint to one of his barrels.

After setting that aside to dry in the sun, Chan began pulling out several wooden planks he had salvaged earlier, and began measuring them for another bucket.

The buckets, which go for about RM150 apiece, are often used to store rice these days.

“In the old days, they’d use these buckets to store and sell soft beancurd,” Chan explained.

In between pulling out nails from the planks, and sawing them into smaller sections, Chan said he was willing to teach others his craft, but no one seems interested anymore.

“These days, younger people want air-conditioned places and all, how to teach?” he questioned, laughingly.


Star2 Monthly Challenge for Travel

Want to participate in our monthly challenge? Here's what you need to do.

Write a travel-related story about your hometown or the place where you presently live. Give us an insight into the place that only a local or resident can – something unusual, off the beaten path, insider tips about places to visit, restaurants and stalls to eat at. Interesting anecdotes about the place, local folklore or noteworthy incidents or prominent people who lived there or still live there.

We don’t want the usual tourist spots and anecdotes that everyone knows. For example, if you’re writing about Ipoh, there’s no need to list the usual eating spots in Old Town, or go on about the Sam Poh Tong Temple – most travellers would already have heard of them. Or if you’re from Kuching, it’s pointless to mention the roundabout with the cat figurines, or the Cat Museum. Instead, draw us into your world, and not the path tourists normally take.

Contributors whose works are published will be paid for their own original stories and pictures.

Your story should be about 700-900 words long, with seven to 10 photos (at least 1MB each).

Please provide your full name, IC number, mailing address and mobile phone number.

Send your entries to star2travel@thestar.com.my under “Star2 Monthly Challenge”.

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