Cities developed around waterways, people settled along canals. Sungai Segget, the “Mother River” of Johor Bahru, has been an important marine transportation connection since the city’s cultivation in 1855, the basis of the city’s economic growth. In the earlier days, Chinese forefathers who migrated to Johor Bahru settled along the shores of the 4-kilometre long Sungai Segget which naturally split the city into East and West shores. Spurred by famous entrepreneur Mr Wong Ah Fook, the East shore is full of commercial buildings where consumer and entertainment services prevailed, while the West shore is pioneered by the most powerful Kangchu in Peninsular Malaysia Mr Tan Hiok Nee, its longest avenue Jalan Trus is where the local Chinese community mainly convene.
Johor Bahru underwent drastic changes over the past century. Under the Sungai Segget Rejuvenation Project carried out by the city council, merely 300 metres of the river course remain. An ancient temple and most double-storey shophouses were retained on Jalan Trus, however as Chinese guild halls and enterprises gradually moved out, the area transformed into “Little India” with Indian clothing shops, gold shops, and a few old stores which stood for decades, such as Sin Keng Wah Mattress Shop.
Established in 1964, Sin Keng Wah is known for handmade pure cotton pillows, bolsters, baby cots, and other bedding items, as well as customization services. Formerly, the shop was operated by a Singaporean, whom the father of the current proprietor Mr Yeow used to work for. During the economic malaise leading to Singapore’s separation from Malaysia, he decided to sell out, thus Mr Yeow’s father and elder brother bought over and renamed it to Keng Wah. Now the second generation owner, Mr Yeow Sien Soon prefixed a “New” to the shop name since his succession. All the while, they rented the same shoplot from an old landlord who knows them thoroughly, maintaining a fond relationship as he lives upstairs. The ancient plaque bearing “Eng Seng” which hung on the upper left corner of the shop entrance was the signboard of a grocery store the landlord used to operate.
Founded over half a century, Sin Keng Wah earned a good reputation for quality bedding that are fluffy, well ventilated, has thermoregulation effects, as well as absorbs moisture. Mr Yeow uses natural kapok cotton imported from Thailand, without mixing any impurities. Lately there has been a raised awareness of health benefits using pure cotton bedding, especially people with backaches or night sweats, and even newborn babies. Thus they accumulated regular customers including the Johor royal sultanate. By chance, Mr Yeow accepted plenty of customized orders from the royal family, and often visits the palace to measure the respective furnitures, as well as seeking audience with the Johor sultan. He said in jest that despite facing pressure from the stern guards and His Majesty’s grandeur, he is touched by the sultan’s friendly attitude, greeting him with “Ah Pek” in a sonorous voice.
In this era of mechanization, traditional handmade items are getting increasingly rare. Mr Yeow persisted to manually sew bedding, ensuring that kapok fibres are distributed evenly without bulky bits, so that users could fall asleep comfortably. Moreover, the ability to customize different shapes and angles could not be replaced by machinery. The skills involved in manufacturing bedding could not be mastered within a short timeframe. From picking cotton, pinning threads into place, cutting fabric, measuring inlet, to using a sewing machine, the procedures are very challenging. The flexibility of the fabric needs to be taken into account in order to ensure the finished product meets the correct size. Besides, delicate kapok fluff may cause respiratory irritation. To avoid absorbing moisture during storage, kapok is kept in a stifling storeroom. Poor work conditions increased difficulty to hire employees.
63-year-old Mr Yeow inherited the family business for 46 years, recollecting how other two fellow tradesmen in Johor Bahru closed down due to no successors, he is glad that his eldest son Boon Teck takes over this traditional mattress shop. From being an uninterested layman to getting guidance from his strict father, and taking the initiative to explore this trade, Boon Teck is able to work independently after about ten years. Since graduating in 2000, he gave up his ambition of being a painter to stay and help his father in the family business. Moving on, he recognises the cultural value of this trade and sparked interest in designing new products, as well as utilising social media to expand customer base.
The Yeow family passes on the skills of crafting bedding from father to son, the dented sides of the century-old workbench in Sin Keng Wah is where three generations of tradesmen sharpened needles, witnessing that mastery is achieved from experience. The bedding is not only stuffed with pure kapok, but also cultural heritage and warm feelings.
Text: Daniel Lim & Pua Hui Wen
有你 UNI Production
Producer : Mok Yii Chek
Coordinator : Daniel Lim
Cinematographer : Amelia Lim / Evon Pang
Video Editor : Michael Lerk
Production Assistant : Michael Lerk
Music : Tido Kang from YouTube
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