Flag Maker: Khoo Koh Leong

Nested within a sky-blue wooden house in Tampin New Village in Negeri Sembilan, with festive couplets adorning the doors and windows, and a wooden plaque hanging above the entrance, is Koh Leong Handicraft Workshop. Upon entry, most of the hall is taken up by a massive workbench with various tools scattered around. The room on the left holds a rectangular table over ten feet in length, hanging near the wall are all sorts of colorful cloth; the room on the right acts as a sewing room, semi-completed pieces hang aside. Uncle Khoo Koh Leong measures cloth with a wooden ruler, draws an outline with chalk, and then trims the edges. He single-handedly produced elegiac banners, appreciation pennants, and prayer flags for almost half a century.

Elegiac banners, appreciation pennants, and prayer flags all belong to the same branch of craft, however each serves a different purpose. Elegiac banners are hung in memorial halls and hearse carriages, as well as representing hometown guilds or schools to offer condolences to the bereaved family. Appreciation pennants acknowledge individual contribution towards society, commonly featuring yellow text on a red background fringed with tassel. Prayer flags are used for adornment during deity birthdays, an offering from worshippers as gratitude for blessings bestowed, showcasing divine powers, the colors vary with each deity. 

In the 1950’s, elegiac banners were handwritten on white paper, with an elegy dedicated to the deceased person and the name of the sender or association written in black ink, usually burned after the funeral service. Back then, infrastructure in Tampin were not quite developed, Uncle Khoo who was a taxi driver used to help fellow villagers in handling elegiac banner purchases from cities such as Seremban or Melaka. In the long run, Uncle Khoo began to take an interest, therefore he started his side job as a self-taught craft maker.

As living standards improved in the 60’s and 70’s, fabric elegiac banners with common obituary phrases such as “Rest in Eternal Peace” or “In Loving Memory” flourished due to convenience and reusability, as they can be retrieved by the represented association after the funeral service. A casket store owner who was friends with Uncle Khoo once enlisted his help to produce elegiac banners and couplets for memorial hall decoration, thus establishing Uncle Khoo’s reputation as well as opening up opportunities. Uncle Khoo also took on new challenges such as producing appreciation pennants and prayer flags, his highly satisfactory handiwork was sought after by customers near and far, from Tampin to the states of Negri Sembilan, Melaka, Selangor, Pahang, and even overseas from Singapore and Indonesia.

For custom flag orders, the purpose, color, and size must be confirmed as Uncle Khoo needs to source materials and cut according to the approximate outline. Upon agreeing on the appropriate text, he measures their respective sizes and copies the words onto paper. The declining traditional practice of embroidery is not feasible for Uncle Khoo, therefore he imprints the words onto the fabric, cuts and pastes them onto the flag, then waits for the glue to dry before sewing. Due to the complicated structure of Chinese words, the sewing process requires attention to details, hence each flag takes two to three days instead of overnight to complete.

Lately, Uncle Khoo switched from using calligraphy to printed words on flags, yet he persists in handcrafting. Each stitch conveys the close relationship between association members or the fervour of worshippers towards deities, sustaining traditional Chinese culture. At the same time, Uncle Khoo still practises Hundred Fortune calligraphy, as well as writing Chinese New Year couplets to gift to friends and family during festivals.

Recent technological innovations brought about computerized flag designs which can be printed onto fabric, with the option of installing LED lights. As times change, Uncle Khoo enjoys flag-making as a hobby, without worrying about the lack of a successor. In his free time, he shoots short funny clips together with family and friends, gaining almost 30K followers on TikTok. Live in the moment, and keep calm in the face of uncertainty.

Text: Daniel Lim & Pua Hui Wen

有你 UNI Production
Producer : Daniel Lim
Cinematographer : Amelia Lim / Evon Pang / Michael Lerk
Drone : Daniel Lim
Video Editor : Amelia Lim
Copywriter : Pua Hui Wen
Music : 《Summer》


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