The ancient craft of woodcarving gets a boost from a young Penang artisan.

Words Alexandra Wong Photos SooPhye

Tucked above one of the quieter pockets of Penang’s World Heritage Site, Keng Hwa Carving Studio is a curious study in contrasts. Illuminated by natural light streaming in from wooden windows, peeling walls surround stark white shelves and light workbenches filled with jars of old wood, ornate signboards and miniature replicas. Both modern and old-school at the same time, the wood carving studio is very much reflective of the maker himself – a young man with an old soul and nimble hands.

Tong Wing Cheong, owner of Keng Hwa Carving Studio in Penang

When we meet at his studio, 32-year-old Tong Wing Cheong is putting the finishing touches to a puppet figurine for Ombak Potehi, a group of young artists who aim to revitalise Hokkien Potehi glove puppet theatre.

These days, he explains, plastic is commonly used as the base material to make Potehi puppets but traditionally they were constructed from wood. The difference? “Wood looks heavy before carving. But after the work is done, the outcome is soft and light. That is the beauty of wood,” he says with a smile.

Traditional Ombak Potehi doll head made from wood

Tong fell in love with the art of wood carving in Taiwan, where it was part of his Masters curriculum at the Graduate Institute of Native Culture, National University of Tainan, an institution renowned for its traditional folk culture.

After graduating in 2012, the Klang-born Tong was lured to Penang, “one of the few places in Malaysia where there are still rich pockets of heritage trades left.” Through his work with non-governmental organisation Penang Heritage Trust, he met Yeap Siew Kay, a master wood carver who shot to fame for almost single-handedly completing the elaborate decorative shrine in Yap Temple on Armenian Street, Penang.

For best results, it is important to keep wood carving tools well sharpened

Thong began apprenticing for the 70-something wood carver in 2013. “For the first six months, I honestly didn’t know what I was doing,” he confesses. “There was so much to learn. In the old days, apprentices would live with their sifu (instructor), and even then, they took three months just to learn how to sharpen their tools!”

Keeping your tools sharp is of primary importance, he notes, because it will affect the outcome (fineness) of your lines and curves. From mallets to chisels, gouges to “doglegs”, Tong probably has over a hundred tools in his collection!

One of Tong’s handiwork

As he refined his skills, Tong made the decision to go full time and rented his current space from a former swiftlet house early this year. Rather than limit himself to a particular genre such as signboards or plaques, he experiments with various forms of woodwork.

His handiwork can be found all around town, from plaques and ritualistic objects for religious use, to reproduction and repair work for Peranakan heritage homes. The latter has turned out to be a significant stream of income for Tong. “It occurred to me one day that I could do refurbishment and renovation work as well as creating designs from scratch. After all, I know my way around wood.”

Woodblock painting

While carrying on an ancient tradition, Tong also attempts to popularise fading art forms such as woodblock painting. “Right now, people either buy the blocks from China and Taiwan, or go for computer printouts,” he laments.

To ensure the art of wood carving continues for years to come, he spends a significant portion of his time organising workshops with local activists to educate the public. Carving wood by hand is so old-school that the craft, on a professional level, could be considered endangered in this part of the world.

Tong hopes to inspire inquiring young minds to work with their hands. “This generation has not had a lot of real opportunity for hands-on experience,” he says. “You never know how one experience might spark their interest, like it did for me.”

Keng Hwa Carving Studio

72, Lorong Carnarvon
10100 George Town, Penang.

+6016-412 0485