As Good As Old

04 August 2016

Many a historical building in Penang has benefitted from the restorative touch of Chor Teik Heng – heritage restorer extraordinaire. He talks about integrity in work, first-timer mistakes and beekeeping for fun.

If he remains silent, Chor Teik Heng cuts an unassuming figure. Of slight built and with a quiet demeanour, the 74-year-old holds a great wealth of knowledge. When approached though, there is no trace of reticence as he shares freely what he does. And this man has done a lot.

Chor is a heritage restorer. He has helped restore many of Penang’s historical buildings. One of the more notable ones was the restoration of the Toi Shan Ning Yang Wui Kwoon building, a 183-year-old ancestral hall and temple. Unlike other restorers that specialise in one craft, Chor undertakes all the restoration that the building requires; from carpentry, to mosaics, to roof restorations.

To describe his as an arsenal of skills is no overstatement. His knowledge and contacts cut across many disciplines. Over the course of the interview, Chor reveals, bit by bit, all his achievements. But “achievements” is a word that observers use, not him. He regards them uniformly as merely “jobs”. When asked which of his achievements he is most proud of, he responds by saying that a job is a job. He approaches them all with the same seriousness, regardless of the project’s scale.

His “jobs” have included, aside from restoration projects, supervising the building of the MRRII highway, involvement with Cameron Highland’s power station (during which he met his wife, he divulges smilingly), and being a certified acupuncturist. These days, Chor has started beekeeping as a hobby to produce beeswax (for furniture polish) and is interested in aquaculture.

When we visit him at his home, which doubles up as his workshop, he is with his young grandchildren. The children move their beanbags uncomplainingly aside to make room for us and later help serve us drinks. They then quietly go back to watching cartoons. There is a 100-year-old vase sitting near the TV amidst the ordinariness of their living room.

Chor’s father and grandfather were carpenters and passed the skill on to him. When he turned 18, in the rebellion justified by teenagedom, Chor went off to be a clerk instead. He earned 80 Malayan dollars a month which was paltry next to the 7 Malayan dollars a day he could’ve earned as a carpenter. Eventually, swayed by those calculations, he left the desk and went back to his tools.

His first commissioned job was done at a loss. Not knowing how to estimate a quote, he named his price and later found out that it did not compensate the time and effort he had to put in. However, Chor stresses that the loss was merely monetary. He then used whatever fee he was paid to buy a book to improve his craft. Through that first job, he earned himself some knowledge and confidence as a carpenter.

That was the start of a journey that has lead him up to this day. “There are three levels of restorers,” he declares. “A furniture maker, a normal restorer and a proper restorer.” He then holds up his fingers again and lists another three points to further elaborate. He explains in Mandarin that to be a “proper restorer”, one must consider these three major areas – workmanship, authenticity of material and design aesthetic.

When restoring a piece of furniture or a part of a building, it is important to make sure that it is restored as close as possible to the original state. A restorer’s task is not to impose his flourishes and personal style on to something, but to match flawlessly what was done before. The workmanship has to be the same as the original. The joints on an antique table are not just fixed, but fixed in a way that honours the time period during which that table was made.

Chor pays minute detail to the materials he uses. To illustrate, he pulls out a piece furniture that he is working on. He points to the chipping varnish and explains that the piece would have benefitted more from beeswax instead of wood varnish because of its history and origins. Knowledge, attention to detail and integrity are all at play in this one decision to choose beeswax over wood varnish; thus maintaining the authenticity of the antique piece.

Being a jack of all trades may connote to being a master of none, but Chor’s work requires the former and the latter. When restoring antiques, he has to look at the original design and not just mimic the style of the previous artisan, but do it masterfully so that there is no detectable difference aesthetically between the two.

The combination of not just breadth of skill but also knowledge, in order to be a heritage restorer, makes it unsurprising that Chor has not found any apprentice to pass his craft on to. Chor reveals that it would take a person with at least five years of experience in carpentry to be an apprentice, and that is very hard to come by in this day and age.  

For now, Chor seems to be the last carpenter in his family line because his children did not choose to continue the trade. His grandson, however, seems to show some interest in carpentry but there is a dismissive chuckle in there when Chor talks about the young boy’s curiosity. Here’s to hoping that the right candidate comes along soon.

Chor Teik Heng was discovered via Artisan Markets’ monthly workshops/events. He runs Xiu Heritage Art & Crafts Studio at 6, Tingkat Nirvana, 10400 Pulau Pinang. Contact him at 012 505 1095 or chor62@gmail.com for more information.

 

By Adeline Chua

This article is related to CULTURE OFF THE BEAT

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