I wasn’t meant to walk down that corridor.
Past the incense joss stick maker and the retro salon offering $8 hair washes, I turned a corner and there he was. An old man in a birdcage and aquarium shop. He couldn’t speak English, so we met halfway in Mandarin and Malay.
In his old shop were bins filled with lacquer, planks of wood piled high to the ceiling. Wooden birdcages everywhere. He’s been crafting them by hand for over 35 years.
If my heart were a jaw, it would have unhinged itself and swallowed it all. The whole thing. His dedication. The craft. All the vanilla-coloured pieces of wicker, glossy black lacquered edges. The history, the stories and all the things this language barrier prevented us from sharing. There was an old accounts book on his desk I had to keep my hands from opening. I wanted to see his handwriting. Imagine the way the ledgers and balances are kept. Before Excel, before social and e-stores. Day in, day out. Just him.
There’s something completely humbling about seeing this artisan at work at his bench. At $30 a pop, you wonder how much he’s making. How many cages can be fashioned per day. Why he has chosen to continue working when he should be retired. If there’s a point to painstakingly whittling and shaping these little wooden skewers and making homes for birds.
It now hangs off my bookshelf in the apartment, I transformed it into a lantern for my candles. Though his craft be evanescent, I know his legacy lives on here.
CHEONG FATT Aquariums & Birdcages 51 Chin Swee Road #02-75, Singapour 160051