Vanishing trades

by | February 4, 2015

Four Ngee Ann Polytechnic students come up with a way to highlight these trades to the young through a mobile game application and website.

BY: Eleanor Yap

The Project Old Jewels team – from left to right: Koh Cheng Jun, Luan Haoyue, Wang Shuya and Wang Ruotong.

Two years ago, 19-year-old Luan Haoyue was wandering the streets near Haji Lane and was fascinated with an old tailor there. However, last year, when she went back to the area, he was no longer there. So when she and her teammates at Ngee Ann Polytechnic had to come up with an idea for their final-year project, they decided on doing something to promote vanishing trades to the young called Project Old Jewels.

Haoyue said: “We realised there are many vanishing trades in Singapore worth preserving and that more people should be exposed to these trades, which have high cultural and heritage value.”

Haoyue, Wang Shuya, 21, and 20-year-old Wang Ruotong and Koh Cheng Jun, all Year-3 students from the Diploma in Chinese Media & Communication and the Diploma in Chinese Studies, are highlighting these trades in a manner that will appeal to the young including a bilingual trivia mobile game application (with Facebook integration) and an informative website, which will be launched this weekend.

The team believes it is timely on this eve of our nation’s Golden Jubilee that they make an effort to appreciate these few remaining vestiges that persist till today. “Early Singaporeans took pride in the achievements of the various trades, as these trade masters exhibited qualities such as perseverance, diligence, adaptability and creativity in challenging times,” said Haoyue.

Screenshot of the game application.

Cheng Jun added that young Singaporeans today are unlikely to venture into such businesses “due to the rise in education levels and shifts in society norms”. He said: “These trades carry the shared history and identity of Singaporeans. Once lost, these trades, along with the culture, skills and memories of the older generation may never be recovered again.”


Catering to the young

The team hopes that by recognising these trades and presenting them in a form that appeals to the young, they will be able to reinforce the national identity of the new generation and develop in them a stronger sense of belonging to Singapore.

The mobile application will have a series of interactive storytelling trivia games. In the story, the character discovers an old diary given to him by his grandfather. He is then brought to a virtual town, which houses four traditional trade masters (snake charmer, songkok-maker, lantern-maker and Chinese embroidery maker), and he begins his cultural discovery.

The mobile application which is catered to the young.

And on the Project Old Jewels website, there will be articles on various vanishing trades, interviews of trade masters and videos of students who get to learn from these trade masters. There will also be a glossary list for young readers who are unfamiliar with certain terms such as naskar, a flute-like pipe that is used in snake charming.

However, getting to where they are now wasn’t easy. Shuya said, “It is hard to find vanishing trades in Singapore. News articles and books relating to these trades are extremely hard to find, and many of these trade masters we found in the records have since passed away. We had to make many field trips around Singapore to places like Haji Lane and Balestier Road.” Ruotong added, “Many of the older generations were also unwilling to be interviewed as some were not comfortable in front of a camera.”

Also, the mobile application needed a lot of money to develop and the team had to find every cent by themselves. Haoyue said, “It was a challenging experience; we learnt a lot through communicating with organisations such as MCCY and the National Youth Council.” The team managed to receive funding from the SG50 Celebration Fund and various other sponsors including Bread Talk and PUB.


What’s next?

A trivia game on the application.

The Project Old Jewels team hopes to continue the project for the long haul and introduce more new content. The Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations (SFCCA) has voiced interest in developing the project further.

And now with greater understanding of the older generation, the team wants to continue to gain further insights. “We have learnt about teamwork and how to communicate professionally with big organisations, while discovering the heritage treasures in Singapore. We realised it is important to understand the older generation so we can close the [age] gap.”



The Project Old Jewels team shared two interesting trade masters that they met:

Songkok maker –

Abdul Wahab started learning to make the songkok since he was four years old. He took over his father’s business and now operates his own shop at Tanjong Katong Complex. His father was a pioneer in Singapore and dived into the songkok business using funds he generated from the sale of his trishaw. The logo on Wahab’s shop is exactly that, to signify the stoic determination and sacrifices his father made to start the songkok business. The original location of the shop was at Geylang Old Market Block 5. Wahab was the only one out of his 10 siblings to show interest in taking over the songkok business as he was worried that the trade and his father’s business would be lost in future.

Wahab is proud of the fact that his customers today range from as young as two weeks ago to those older. He takes special pride in his hand-sewn songkoks, and the durability of his songkoks is evident when he shared that a customer came back to him for a replacement after wearing the same songkok for 25 years.

Snake charmer –

Yusof Ular is a third-generation snake charmer in Singapore. He learnt his trade since he was six years old from his father and uncle, who taught him not only how to handle snakes but also how to cater to the preferences of the audiences. Yusof faced many challenges at the start, including how to engage the older crowd. There were also others who were afraid of snakes.

Snake charming wasn’t always what Yusof wanted to do. He worked as a bus driver for five years and took up other odd jobs before he decided to go back to snake charming. He admitted that it was not an easy decision. He had to make adjustments to his mindset in order to combat the sometimes negative perceptions that other Singaporeans or tourists hold of the job. Over the years, Yusof encountered numerous situations where he was called unflattering names and was treated with disrespect. However, he constantly has to remind himself that in his job, more often than not, he will only meet the same people once.

Today, Yusof is often invited to perform at events such as block parties as well as birthday parties. He acknowledges that he cannot be choosy and fussy over which jobs to take up. He incorporates educational elements in his performances in order to suit his younger audiences, and today, he is hugely popular among event organisers.


* To download the free mobile app, go to Google Play or iTunes. For more information on Project Old Jewels, go to the Facebook page at:

The Project Old Jewels will be launched on February 7 at 11.30am to 2pm at Lifelong Learning Institute (Paya Lebar MRT). All are welcome to attend. Register here.


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