In a world where job hopping is the order of the day with most, Mr. Teo Veoh Seng, 86 is an exception. The former Head Artisan of Haw Par Villa, served in his role for almost 70 years.
Teo’s incredible journey has been immortalised on screen with a documentary made on him entitled: ‘The Last Artisan’.
Haw Par Villa formerly known as the Tiger Balm Gardens, was owned by millionaire , philanthropist brothers, the late Aw Boon Par and Aw Boon Har who were renowned for their successful Tiger Balm business.
Established in 1937, the 3,800 square metre park was believed to have been built by Boon Haw for his brother Boon Par at an estimated cost of $1 million, and housed some 1,000 statues and dioramas. I guess we could probably call it the first theme park in Singapore. It was infamous for its 10 Courts of Hell which featured in ancient Chinese folklore depicting punishments for sin in the afterlife . Open to the public for free in the early years, Haw Par Villa, drew throngs of visitors in the 60’s and 70’s. As a child, I remember being terrified as the life- like colours and images are imprinted in my mind.
Mr. Teo’s family has a deep-rooted connection with Haw Par Villa.
Mr. Teo’ s father was the senior supervisor at Haw Par and also ran a drinks stall there. The extended Teo family of more than 30 members lived on the premises in a large plot of land, owned by the Aw brothers.
The ‘kampong’ or village home as he calls it had 15 rooms and they even had two crocodile ponds. Teo is married with eight children and he’s a grandfather and great grandfather as well.
The family moved out of Haw Par Villa in 1990 when Fraser and Neave (F&N) and Times Publishing bought over Haw Par Villa. Having lived as an extended family in a Kampong and in communal style, the relocation to a 4-room apartment in a HDB estate in Bukit Batok took some getting used to, for him.
However, he is fortunate to have a good number of his children living in apartments within a stone’s throw of his block of flats.
He is proud of his self-made and successful children as evidenced by the many ‘graduation’ photographs that line the wall of his living room. Teo proudly admits that his daughter, Adeline financed her own education at the University of Canberra, Australia, earning a master’s in Marketing and Communications.
As a 13-year-old, Teo apprenticed with a master craftsman and over the years honed his skills, rising to become the head artisan. Such is his passion and dedication to his craft that he even created his own tools to help fix statues that were damaged by visitors to the park.
As some of the statues and dioramas were mounted out of his reach, Teo says, “When I was younger, I would easily climb up to paint them and make my way down. I would use a ladder or stilts which I made to help me reach the statues”. For all that hard work, he earned a meagre sum of $60 monthly. His entire pay packet went to his mother who ran the extended household of sons, daughters, their spouses and children. For all his paints, Teo painstakingly, mixes all the colours that he wants, by himself. Even the cement used to fix some of the inside of the sculptures and dioramas , are mixed manually by him.
As he aged, his legs is weakening Hence he decided to retire but not before passing on his skills to the next generation of artisans. The search for younger Singaporean, artisans to take over was futile and eventually two men from mainland China were recruited to apprentice under Mr Teo. Despite the language barrier ( Mr Teo does not speak Mandarin and speaks only Teochew), they’ve managed to work together as Art knows no barrier. The hardworking or tough? taskmaster says that his apprentices would take a while to reach his level. And one can understand as Teo himself took years to master the skills.
So how does someone who worked for nearly seven decades take to retirement?
The Octogenarian, sticks to a routine. His mornings are spent at a coffee shop in Bukit Batok, which he frequents twice daily together with his buddies. At 66 , Teo picked up golf and while he does not have a handicap, he has played at courses in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. He often plays with his family members, daughter Adeline and her friends. Pre pandemic, he would play at Changi Golf Club. His other interest is in watching horse racing.
He also enjoys travelling with his family to Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. To keep him occupied, his family would get him to restore some of the damaged sculptures and ornaments in their homes, sometimes resort to buying them online and getting him to re-paint them. Teo stores his tools and paints in a special spot in his home as they are very precious to him . He shows them off to me beaming with pride . And why not? They don’t make artisans like him anymore.