Sign of the Times...
Malaysia’s Last Traditional Signboard Maker

Kok Ying Chow Signboard Maker
41, Queen Street, George Town.

His is a humble shop inconspicuously tucked away among the many pre-war shop houses along Queen Street. He is nonchalant about his talent, referring to it as “just a job” but 68-year old Kok Ah Wah is believed to be Malaysia’s last traditional signboard maker – a skill he inherited from his late Chinese immigrant father.

From Mondays to Saturdays, Kok can be seen engraving wooden traditional signboards by hand – painstakingly tracing his designs onto the wooden board before actual carving can begin.

“This is my work. I do it to earn a living. There may be others who dabble in making traditional signboards manually but it is more of a hobby. Nowadays, people use machines to make the boards because it is faster and less labour intensive.

“It is not easy. Even my children do not want to take over the family business,” he says, proudly showing off the Penang Heritage Trust-HSBC Living Heritage Treasure of Penang certificate he received as recognition of his skill and talent.

Armed with a jig saw, hand saw, chisel, file and wood plane, he toils away from noon till late evening – oblivious to traders hawking their wares outside his shop or tourists snapping away as he goes about his work.

“It is not that difficult but it does require a lot of patience. When I was learning the trade from my father, I was very young and he used to scold me because he was such a perfectionist. Nowadays, I am not sure if people have the patience to do this,” he said.

The process is straightforward but tedious. Kok starts off by sandpapering and cutting the soft board into the correct size and shape before smoothening the surface with glazing putty.

Once dry, carbon paper is used to trace the characters and design which he will proceed to carve. Another layer of putty and thinner is then applied before it is painted.

“Usually, I use black, red or green for the background and gold for the characters. Traditionally, signboards bearing a family’s district of origin (in China) are hung at the home while those displaying a trade name is placed at places of business.

“The district of origin reveals a lot about the family, for instance their dialect and surname. This is how migrant Chinese workers preserved their tradition and identity after leaving their motherland.

“Till today, wooden signboards remain an important part of Chinese culture. On special occasions like the opening of a shop, signboards inscribed with congratulatory blessings are presented as gifts,” he says.

Tourists can get him to make personalised signboards bearing their names. A small board measuring about 30cmX20cm cost slightly more than RM100. Depending on the size and type of wood, a signboard could cost more than RM4,000. It may take a few days (depending on his work load) but it is worth the wait because these one-of-a-kind pieces are no different from any great work of art - priceless!