Annie Teo writes on this old trade, still practised in Kuching:

KUCHING PHAK PE’ THIK – Hitting White Metal


The clanging of the hammer against the tin

Is it the sound of clanging hammer against sheets of tin? Somehow, when I am at the Main Bazaar, I always turn into Bishopsgate Street or China Street. This is where commerce thrived in the 19th Century and for most of the 20th Century. Ships from Malaya, Singapore, India, China and even from far away England unloaded cargoes of precious goods at the nearby riverbanks of the Sarawak River.


Ho Nyen Foh’s shop, No.16 Bishopsgate Street

In this old part of the town some traditional crafts still thrive. I went to interview the Ho family at No. 16 Bishopsgate Street. They have been tin smiths since 1927. I brought Amanda Tan as my interpreter.

Amanda (a Teochew who can’t speak her own dialect) introduces herself to Chang GekKiak, a Hakka lady who cannot speak Hakka.

Chang GekKiak is a daughter-in-law of the Ho family. She is passionate about the family’s history and craftsmanship. She says with regret that the skill will die out when the present six very old smiths of Kuching – 2 in Bishopsgate and 4 in China Street – hang their hammer for the last time. She adds that it takes 7 to 8 years to become a master smith.


No fancy equipment


They are indeed experts. Just watch a smith at work – seated on a low rattan stool on the five-foot way in front of the shop – and you will find him totally focused on his work. He has no fancy equipment: just a small stove that provides a strong flame fed by an ancient gas canister; a few tools; some calibrating instruments; and a small heavy work bench that serves as a sort of anvil.

During our visit, the smith was busy putting final touches to some dice shakers for the game of Ho Lo. In this popular game the players bet on one of five animals or the one gourd painted on a special cloth, then they shake and roll three dice and they win if all three dice show the icons. The smith seals precisely the bottom of the dice shaker to its cylindrical body with thin filaments of hot molten lead. His hands must be very steady while doing this.


Hunting and paraffin lamps on top of a letter box

Inside the shop, what looks like a messy junk premises is actually order to the owner. 80-year old Yong Kguk Fah, the owner reigns here. She is a retired master smith and an expert at making paraffin lamps. Her son proudly shows us one of her handiwork – a copper hunting lamp. Hunters used this lamp attached to the end of the gun. The lamp has a space to slide in a match box – but only for a British-made matchbox – because this particular lamp was only made for export to Britain. A Malaysian matchbox would not fit into the pace.


The belian block to shape the hunting lamp reflectors

We were shown a black-and-white family photograph. It shows the patriarch, Ho Kee Nyen, who came to Kuching in the 1920s from Taipoh (***?) in China. He was only 20 years old then. Some of his relatives who had already settled in Kuching sent word to Taipoh that there was a great future here for people who were willing to work hard. Ho Kee Nyen took the challenge. When he duly arrived in Kuching he was taken in as an apprentice by the first tin smith who brought the skill from China.

Tin, then, was imported from Malaya. Later, the tin smiths also used copper, aluminum and steel in their industry. There were no large-scale manufacturers of kitchen utensils and other household items. Therefore, the tin smiths held the monopoly on making cooking pots, ice-box, letter box, money box, cake moulds, baking trays, oil canisters, ladles for different purposes, etc.

Even today, food sellers and restaurants still like to order custom-made cooking utensils: bakers want specific cake moulds and tins; house owners and businesses require specific-sized mail-boxes; villagers still need small paraffin lamps, and of course, Ho Lo is a popular game all over Sarawak.


Kettles and ladles. Who knows, perhaps an artist will pick the challenge of painting the grey metal kettles

Business is still thriving for the Ho family. They have filled a sack with yellow hell money to burn as an offering to their ancestors. I wonder if they will pray to get young people to come to work as apprentices so as to carry on the trade as new-age artisans? Perhaps an artist will rise to the challenge and paint the Sarawak grey metal kettles folk-art style.

We take so many things around us for granted – such as the sound of hammering of the tin smiths on Bishopsgate and China Streets. We don’t realise that one day such things will no longer be there. After the interview, I bought a hunting lamp from the Ho’s shop – it does not matter that I am no hunter or that my box of Cap Kris matches will not fit into the matchbox slot. The most important thing is that I have this special hunting lamp from the past.


The old safe box