Traditional furniture makers

Traditional furniture makers are highly skilled carpenters who make furniture pieces using Chinese furniture-making methods.1 The older generation of craftsmen mostly came from China within the last century.2 Some of these craftsmen were Japanese who arrived in Singapore before World War II.3

As the Chinese immigrant population in Singapore increased, so did the flow of traditional Chinese furniture. Most of these furniture was made in Singapore by immigrant Chinese craftsmen, with the trade still carried on by some of their descendants.4 Japanese settlers who arrived in Singapore in the 1910s and ’20s were also adept furniture makers, but they were a minority in the trade.5

The furniture makers build an assortment of furniture pieces such as chairs, tables, altars, wooden sofa frames and other household furniture. In addition, they restore and repair old furniture pieces. Furniture making was traditionally a family trade passed on from father to son, and in exceptional cases, to daughter.6

Becoming a good furniture maker requires a combination of strength and skill. Chinese furniture making is based on the three main disciplines of joinery, carving and finishing.7 Many who join the profession are sons of pioneer craftsmen who passed down their skills through the family line. Like all traditional handicrafts, making old-style furniture requires a great deal of patience.8

Furniture making and restoration was once a flourishing business. Shops were mainly located along Neil Road, Blair Road, Lloyd Road, Lorong Mambong (off Holland Avenue) and High Street.9 By the 1980s, however, the number of Chinese furniture shops had dwindled. At Killiney Road, for instance, five Shanghai wood-working shops had to move elsewhere due to redevelopment projects.10  

Job scope
Furniture making styles vary between northern and southern China, and differ between dynasties.11 Some local furniture makers specialised in a specific furniture making style. The old Chinese furniture found in the homes of the Straits Chinese, in temples and various shops in Chinatown came from southern China, mostly within the last century. This furniture style is most often manifested in the form of cupboards, couches, beds, altar tables as well as temple and household decorative panels. They all ornately decorated and intricately carved with floral motifs or scenes from traditional dramas and romantic tales.12

According to an article published in 1985, the income of furniture makers varied each month, as they had no fixed fees and their working hours were flexible. For restoration works, their fees normally depended on the extent of damage and the time needed to restore a piece of work.13

Early Chinese traditional furniture pieces used to be measured in standard sizes using Chinese rulers. For example, a table had to be either two by four feet or two by two feet in size, and an altar table had to be six by eight feet or four by eight feet in size, according to Chinese measurements. Different ruler measurements were also used to distinguish between the furniture of aristocrats and ordinary people.14

Chinese furniture making involves three basic skills of joinery, carving, and finishing.15 The process begins after a piece of wood is chopped. Carving is the most delicate part of the whole process, taking months to complete. After carving, the wood pieces are joined together. Ways of joining differ according to style and furniture type. As nails and glue were hardly used in the past, joinery was a highly specialised skill. The final process is the finishing, which involves various oils, colouring agents and waxes.16

Over time, the number of traditional furniture makers dwindled as their business declined and rental for their shophouses skyrocketed.17 Fewer Singaporeans had their furniture repaired and the customer base for traditional furniture similarly declined due to the high maintenance of such furniture.18 Today, there are a few traditional furniture making shops remaining.19 Their business mainly comes from tourists and hotels.20 The furniture makers also help to restore or repair the antique furniture collections of establishments such as museums.21 


Naidu Ratnala Thulaja

1. Margaret Sullivan, “Can Survive, La”: Cottage Industries in High-Rise Singapore (Singapore: Graham Brash, 1993), 100. (Call no. RCLOS 338.634095957 SUL)
2. Anne Jones, A Guide to Buying Antiques, Arts & Crafts in Singapore (Singapore: Times Books International, 1993), 13 (Call no. RSING 745.1095957 JON); Sullivan, “Can Survive, La”, 99, 103.
3. Lam Pin Foo, “Japanese Settlers Were Here before the War,” Straits Times, 25 February 1998, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Jones, Guide to Buying Antiques, Arts & Crafts, 13.
5. Lam, “Japanese Settlers Were Here before the War.” 
6. Sullivan, “Can Survive, La”, 103.
7. Sullivan, “Can Survive, La”, 100.
8. Grace Wong, “Traditional Style Furniture Comes into Fashion,” Straits Times, 10 July 1980, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
9. “A Labour of Love,” Goodwood Journal 1st Qtr (1985): 29 (Call no. RSING 052 GHCGJ); Sullivan, “Can Survive, La”, 103.
10. Sullivan, “Can Survive, La”, 102, 104.
11. Sullivan, “Can Survive, La”, 101.
12. Grace Wong, “Wood Carving on Southern Chinese Furniture,” Straits Times, 16 January 1980, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Jones, Guide to Buying Antiques, Arts & Crafts, 18–19.
13. “Labour of Love,” 31.
14. Sullivan, “Can Survive, La”, 101.
15. Sullivan, “Can Survive, La”, 100.
16. Jones, Guide to Buying Antiques, Arts & Crafts, 13; Sullivan, “Can Survive, La”, 101.
17. Sullivan, “Can Survive, La”, 101.
18. Margaret Sullivan, “An Old Venture Thrives,” Straits Times, 27 December 1982, 2 (From NewspaperSG); Sullivan, “Can Survive, La”, 102.
19. Anita Evans, “Junk Becomes Gems,” Straits Times, 17 July 1981, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Sullivan, “Can Survive, La”, 102.
21. “Labour of Love,” 29.

The information in this article is valid as at 2017 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


Furniture making--Singapore
Vanishing trade