Beautiful hand-carved signboards used to be ubiquitous among Chinese communities in Malaysia. Made of special wood resisting the tropical weather, they last for over a century. But that cannot be said about the trade, which is unlikely to survive the next generation. The craft is now on the brink of extinction, and Mr. Kok Ah Wah is probably the last of the remaining signboard engravers in Penang.
Hung above the front doors of houses, shops, and temples, the hand-carved wooden signboards used to be an important part of the Chinese community in Penang. In the houses, they were used to display the district in China the owners originated from to indicate their dialect and family’s name. In the shops, they were hung to display the company’s name and the nature of business. The wooden signboards were traditionally presented to newly opened businesses as an auspicious sign bringing luck and prosperity.
But the times have changed. Today, many people opt for machine-engraved and cheap plastic signboards with neon lighting, which are fast replacing the traditional wooden signboards. Given the time-consuming process of hand-made engraving and its high prices compared to mass production signs, traditional signboard makers are struggling to survive.
Mr. Kok Ah Wah is one a few remaining Penang’s traditional signboard engravers, maybe even the last one. Mr. Kok inherited the trade from his father, Mr. Kok Ying Chow, who immigrated to Penang from turmoil-laden China after the WWII and became a signboard engraver. Today, despite his advanced age, he is still making traditional signboards in his small workshop in the centre of Georgetown.
We found Mr. Kok bent over a thick wooden board, his wrinkled hands skilfully carving Chinese characters with a chisel. With not many orders received from the locals compared to the past, he also started making wooden signboards for tourists, with the names engraved in Chinese or English.
Behind Mr. Kok are framed old photographs of himself and some newspaper articles of his more renowned signboards, all discoloured over years of sunlight.
Looking at the old man patiently carving the wooden board, I am wondering about the future of this beautiful craft. Only one of Mr. Kok’s sons occasionally assists him with the carving and painting, and I am not sure if he will take over his father’s business to preserve this endangered traditional trade.
Today, people are looking for fashionable digital displays, brightly coloured giant billboards, and other fancy signage. But nothing compares to the beauty and appeal of hand-made things crafted with love and dedication by local artisans.
Location: Mr. Kok Ah Wah can be found at 41, Queen Street, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia.