Symphony of the tinsmith 

Mural entitling "Symphony of the tinsmith" is the latest attraction of China Street of Kuching.

by Karen Bong

KUCHING, Dec 29: The story of an aged-old tinsmithing craft and trade have been captured in a mural on the rugged wall of China Street in the old quarter of Kuching.

The newest mural, by leading street artist Leonard Siaw, depicts tinsmiths from three generations at work using old tools powered by hand to turn thin metal into tinware like pots, pans and other kitchen utensils is rapidly taking shape with painting well underway.

Enter China Street from Main Bazaar to see the oldest tinman, in his 80s, smiting metal to shape with his hammer, and next to him, an over 60-year-old tinman folding and soldering the edge of a bucket while another 40-ish tinman is trimming wire.

They are skilled artisans who practised skills of long ago — skills passed down through the generations from one craftsman to the next.

While admiring the mural and appreciating the story, listen carefully and walk down towards the sound of metal clanging, clattering and tinkling to find skilled craftsmen sitting on low stools and busy at work, even on the five-foot way, in crammed and cluttered shops.

Dato Wee Hong Seng and the tinsmith mural.
The tinsmith of China Street, Kuching at work.

Entitled the ‘Symphony of the Tinsmith’, this is the second mural installation under the ‘History On The Wall’ project series, which is supported by the state government, to enliven empty space, transform the cityscape and, more importantly, share stories of old Kuching’s rich cultural heritage.

The first from the project was ‘The Early Mercers’, where two pioneer textile traders, Wee Aik Oh and Sayed Ahmad, were immortalised on the wall of India Street.

Siaw said the mural, which he started working on Dec 15, is now 60 per cent completed, and it will take another week to finish.

“I think this project is very meaningful. Vibrant and impressive murals that are professionally done and street art have turned this old part of town into an outdoor gallery that not only helped to tell the stories of Kuching city but also contributes to tourism,” he added.

“My aim as a street artist is to beautify and enliven our city. From my travel experience to western countries, street artists take their art seriously and passionately. It is not scribbles and marks because murals are properly done with details and messages. Overseas, street art is promoted, and I hope the same can be done here.”

Kuching North City Hall Commissioner Dato Wee Hong Seng emphasised that the main objective of this public art project was to document and share stories, memories and histories of the community in the old Kuching neighbourhood.

“As modernisation takes place, setting changes and the city continues to grow, the history remained intact and integrated,” he told DayakDaily when contacted today.

The saying that a picture paints a thousand words couldn’t be truer, Wee said, because these murals are powerful and inspiring pieces that do more than just add colour to walls and streets that would otherwise go unnoticed.

“Murals or street art present a beautiful way for passersby, visitors and especially tourists to explore the history, heritage, culture and community life of this old part of the city. This is what this project aims to do — honour, celebrate and identify the city’s past, present and future,” he added.

China Street, he shared, was fondly called ‘pak tik gei’ or hammering metal street in Hokkien by the Chinese community as this was the birthplace of the Hakka tinsmiths and the traditional metal industry in Kuching.

There are only six tinsmith shops left in this old neighbourhood, which was once the most thriving business and trading area of Sarawak, and the skilled artisans are few. Four are on China Street and two are on Bishopgate Street.

This century-old craft is at risk of dying out as the younger generation showed little interest in continuing the tradition of tinsmithing.

“The mural portraits are of real people who are significant to the community. Through art, we want to preserve their story and at the same time, promote this dying skills and trade,” he pointed out.

“The story is etched on the wall to remind and educate people about this ancient craft. People can learn from the past of how this trade came about and see the present on how the trade transformed through time into what it is today. We want to draw people to this wall that tells a story about the tinsmithing trade.”

With so much information to share, Wee added that there are plans to create and put QR codes on the murals to provide instant information about the stories and histories.

“With advanced mobile technology, I think this is a great way not only to share a history but to record and document the history or the root of crafts, and even the tradition, culture and heritage of our unique and colourful community,” he concluded. — DayakDaily