Need to keep cultural heritage alive

Yeap was a Penang Heritage Trust Living Heritage award recipient.

WOODEN idol carver Yeap Siew Kay, a Penang Heritage Trust Living Heritage Award recipient, left us on Saturday. He was 76.

He slipped into a coma after collapsing at home on Feb 12. It turned out that the master carver was suffering from brain hemorrhage.

Despite medics’ efforts, he died 11 days later at Penang Hospital.

Over the years, Yeap was always a familiar face in the local art scene, be it at apprenticeship programmes, artisan markets or cultural events, as his delicate and fine details in wood carvings always turned heads.

He mastered the skill through a lot of trial and error.

A strong believer that it’s always blessed to give than to receive, Yeap had once said: “Many masters in the past were not willing to pass down 100% of their knowledge to others, but I want others to know everything I do”.

His youngest son, Soo Guan, who happened to be my childhood friend, said he took a few lessons from his father many years ago.

But he was never meant to be the ‘special one’ or ‘chosen one’ to continue the legacy.

In short, hard work alone would not bring you far in this trade. An artistic aptitude, special talent and passion can make a difference.

Then there is the story of Ah Yong, in her 60s, who used to sell wantan mee in Ayer Itam.

Her daily routine began at about 5am, and ended at about 2pm. After that, she had to go marketing to prepare for the next day.

If business was good, she would ‘clash’ with her husband as chances of misplaced orders were high, especially during the mad rush to get the orders for customers.

The laborious nature of work, long hours of standing and poor working environment are the concerns, which more often than not, lead to the deterioration of one’s health.

You still have to get up to work even if you are sick. If you stop, your income stops as well.

There are no medical benefits or perks, like those offered by the private or public sectors.

There would be no source of retirement funds, be it pension or Employees’ Provident Fund contribution, unless you start your own savings from young.

Given a choice, Ah Yong preferred her children to pursue a career in the corporate world, although selling wantan mee could earn a decent living.

Penang’s lure lies in its intangible cultural heritage and hawker fare.

More often than not, the state government has always been the target of criticism for not doing enough to map out a long-term plan to safeguard the tourism industry.

It’s always easy to pin the blame on the state government for merely being interested in promoting ‘disneyfication’ (transforming local customs or historical places into trivial entertainment) or selling trinkets and souvenirs in tourism spots.

We all know the importance of nurturing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

But finding a successor to keep the traditional crafts and food going could be a daunting task.

Naturally, Yeap’s and Ah Yong’s children are the ideal replacements.

But, I believe there could be many Master Yeaps and Ah Yongs out there, who were either reluctant to pass down the business to their children, or their children were simply not interested in taking over their trade or arts.

In the meantime, rest in peace Master Yeap! I believe you are now in a better place.

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