Street Art: Reprising Swee Tin’s Folding Doors

Text and photography: Law Siak Hong

Very few people would choose to work on Sunday, except idiots like me, I have thought. Then I met Raymond and his colleague on the street.

It was a fine Sunday morning, and I was desperate for some white coffee. I drove to my favourite kopitiam in Old Town. Turning into Patrick Street, or Persiaran Bijeh Timah, I noticed two persons ‘stuck’ to the bright fresh paint on Swee Tin Tea Merchants – a stop on my Old Town Heritage Trail. Wow, sign painters at work in the five-foot-way. Coffee could wait.

Sign painters working on Swee Tin's folding doors.

Just for a little while, to get some shots, I thought. I ended up spending a good part of an hour with them.

Needless to say, our conversation happened intermittently. The painters did not sacrifice their creative process for a chat. Their rhythm must be maintained; they must not be distracted if I wanted to hang around while they worked.

They organised their work quietly. I watched with admiration. Laden with enamel paint, steadily, their brushes licked the old metal surface while their minds played their favourite tunes – I imagined.

Raymond and his colleague working on the five-foot-way; patience strong (right).

They worked on a design which had weathered forty years. The man recalled executing the original painting and subsequent renewals, a new coat every few years. Nothing has changed over the years.

Nothing was what it seemed. Their job was made more laborious because of the crimped profile of the metal door. With lines which went over bumps, they painted with short strokes from both directions. What looked like a small flat area of paint had in fact been dappled in with hundreds of strokes. The reward may be small, but it is what they enjoy doing, Au had declared.

From left: Slogan, logo and letterings.

As we chatted about sign painting and advertising, the man revealed himself as one of the members of the artistic Au family, which ran one of Ipoh’s premier advertising sign making businesses. The family operated their business in a shop on Kenion Street, the street of sign makers in Ipoh Old Town. Kenion Street is now the last bastion of epigraphy engravers and chic-blinds makers.

Shophoouses on Kenion Street.

It was the end of their week-long paint job for Swee Tin’s metal folding doors. They had to finish before sunset. Reluctantly I left them, forgetting my coffee altogether.

In this age of computer prints and laminated cut-outs, hand-painting has become a dying trade, a sunset industry. But, as long as Au and his fellow artists are alive and well, it will go on.




5 Responses to “Street Art: Reprising Swee Tin’s Folding Doors”

  1. 1 Yeo Hock Yew April 1, 2011 at 11:21 pm

    Dear Siak Hong,

    That was quite a sacrifice – working on a Sunday morning, and missing the kopi. But although you may not have mentioned it watching these two dedicated artists at work must have been motivating.

    We hardly see this artwork done here in Singapore any more. It reminds me of the artists who painted movie advertisements on canvases which were then hoisted onto lorrys to be displayed around the streets in town. Or the painted canvas would be hung up at the cinemas. Our traditional cinemas like Cathay, Odeon, and Capitol have disappeared from the local scene. In their place are the modern cineplexes and their advertisements are effortlessly generated by computers. With this development the canvas artists have disappeared.

    I have seen the empty shells of the old cinemas in Ipoh and Taiping and, like many of the locals there of my vintage, missed those golden movie years of the 50s and 60s, when the Shaw Brothers ‘Movie News’ was yours for only for 50 cents. Now that’s a very ancient price!

    So, Siak Hong, your Sunday work was not a waste. You have shown readers dedication to the maintenance of a heritage. It’s a lesson we all can learn.

    Thank you for that nostlagic article.

    Best wishes

    Hock Yew

  2. 2 Siak Hong April 2, 2011 at 1:29 am

    Thanks for your appreciation, Hock Yew.
    Indeed, the art of cinema advertising on large canvases have vanished in this age of cineplexes. I wonder if any of these canvases has survived.
    It is up to businesses to offer sign painters jobs to keep their skills alive; equally, the practitioners must remain relevant.
    There is no point in flogging a dead horse.
    Psst, I don’t work every Sunday 🙂

  3. 3 Yusuf Martin April 2, 2011 at 6:48 am

    It is great to see this local craft still evident and I wish more people would paint their own advertising rather than entrust it to an ad company.

  4. 4 The Thrifty Traveller April 2, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    It is good to see that this traditional artform is still in existence.
    Shop keepers should be encouraged to make more use of this medium – after all why pay for billboard advertisements when they have this free advertising space right in front of their shops?
    Perhaps a prize should be offered annually for the best decorated metal folding doors in Ipoh.

  5. 5 Siak Hong April 8, 2011 at 3:06 am

    To: Yusuf
    Sorry for not making it clear, but Raymond does not own Swee Tin. He painted the original design when his family’s ad company took the job. Raymond is operating his own sign painting business, I believe.

    To: The Thrifty Traveller
    It is a nice idea to give recognition to traditional artform still in development. But of course much work has to be done, if we were serious about offering prizes for the best decorated metal folding doors.
    To see these wonderful signs, drive around town on any Sunday.
    You will notice other traditional signages, like stucco letterings on columns, epigraphic panels (like the one over Swee Tin’s door, with Jawi script, Chinese characters and English words).

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