Idol carvers were craftsmen who carved Chinese deities out of wood for worship. They were usually Cantonese and Hokchew working in the Chinatown area. Their work involved not only fine craftsmanship but also an understanding of Chinese gods and goddesses.1
Idol carving was a family trade finely honed in China and brought to Singapore through immigrant Chinese.2 Idol carvers are believed to have established their trade in Singapore in the late 1890s.3 The tradesmen were commonly found around the Club Street area and its adjoining Gemmil Lane. Traditionally, they carved Taoist and Buddhist idols, but their tasks also included the appraisal and repair of antiques and other wood work. Apart from being skilled craftsmen, the carvers had to possess good knowledge of Chinese deities, including their unique poses, expressions and other traits.4
Most idol carvers carved deities in traditional poses, based on designs passed down through the generations. The carvers’ task would become more challenging when customers requested for specific expressions or poses for their idols. Added to this, the innumerable Chinese deities had unique requirements for different families based on their surnames. Once a customer had decided on the size of a deity, its expression and other fine details, the idol carver would set out to carve. An auspicious day was chosen for the task and prayers were offered to different gods asking for assistance in their upcoming task.5 Teak, sandalwood and cedar were preferred because they were tough and resistant to termite infestation.6 The wood was usually imported from China. The idols were usually between six to eight inches tall.7
The idol carver began by painstakingly carving the features of the idol. The finished idol was sand papered and smoothened, then waxed with a mixture of varnish, incense powder or wood powder, and Chinese paint. The wax – a thick, glutinous, semi-solid mass – was flattened on a marble slab. One end of the flattened wax was thinned out, drawn out as thin strings and rolled around a stick. The wax strings were unrolled on the idol to form intricate patterns, for example a sleeve or a necklace. The usual practice would then be to fully varnish the idol using plain varnish imported from China. Following this, it was dried, and gold leaf was pasted on it before the idol was finally painted to transform into the finished product.8
Idol makers obtained their business mainly from individuals, temples and tourists.9 Difficulties in their trade began when clay idols from Taiwan were imported en masse. The idols looked similar to the wooden ones that the local craftsmen carved, and were much cheaper.10
Naidu Ratnala Thulaja
1. Margaret Sullivan, “Can Survive, La”: Cottage Industries in High-Rise Singapore (Singapore: Graham Brash, 1993), 211–12. (Call no. RSING 338.634095957 SUL)
2. Sullivan, “Can Survive, La”, 211–13, 215.
3. Sullivan, “Can Survive, La”, 211; “Beauty on Wood,” Goodwood Journal 2nd Qtr (1982): 17. (Call no. RCLOS 052 GHCGJ)
4. Sullivan, “Can Survive, La”, 211–13, 215.
5. Sullivan, “Can Survive, La”, 211, 214, 217.
6. “Celestial Beauties,” Goodwood Journal 4th Qtr (1987): 36. (Call no. RCLOS 052 GHCGJ)
7. Sullivan, “Can Survive, La”, 213.
8. “Celestial Beauties,” 36.
9. Sullivan, “Can Survive, La”, 214; “Beauty on Wood,” 19.
10. “Celestial Beauties,” 33–34; Sullivan, “Can Survive, La”, 214.
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.