November 27, 2020

Grandson is preserving his grandma’s 120-year-old craft through Airbnb

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Tucked behind a desk, in a corner of a 120-year-old shop, sits Tan Chwee Lian.At 87, she can almost always be found in her favourite chair, painting, carving, and moulding sculptures for Buddhist temples.

She’s been doing that in this small family business, the Say Tian Hng Buddha Shop, for the past 69 years.

But her craft may not last. Because of competition with cheap, mass-made sculptures, the store’s products can’t quite compete on the market.

One month’s worth of effort put into a single 30cm-tall statue goes for about $1,000. A factory can churn out one in a fraction of the time, and also for a tenth of the price.

As a result, the store, founded in 1896, is the only one left in Singapore making statues of these deities completely by hand.

To show more people what his family’s store can do, Tan’s grandson, Ng Tze Yong, put up a tour and hands-on lesson set as an Airbnb Experience.

Experiences is Airbnb’s attempt to provide activities and trips to travellers across the globe. Visitors are able to try out anything from local cooking sessions to urban sketch walks.

Whittling a deity from a block of wood

And it’s working. Today, you can find visitors from across the world huddling inside Tan’s antiquated shop in the middle of bustling Singapore, trying their hand at making their own little works of art.

Ng, the grandson, told Mashable he believes his family’s shop has a future, but that it needs to be brought into the 21st century, with more exposure and to make the statues accessible to non-believers.

For example, they’ve started selling statues with brief description cards attached, so people know what they’re looking at.

What was the Experience like?

With the session limited to around two or three hours each, visitors aren’t able to make whole sculptures, but they’re able to try their hand at making part of a statue.

Ng says, of his grandmother: “She doesn’t really understand the concept of [the Airbnb Experience]. She’s surprised that foreigners know about us, but enjoys that people come here and take photos of her and videos.”arin Mehta, Airbnb’s regional director of trips for Asia-Pacific, said Ng reached out to extend his family’s store, as part of Singapore’s cultural history.

“We are really glad to see passionate locals, such as Chwee Lian and Tze Yong, wanting to highlight a unique and authentic side of Singapore to travellers from all around the world.”

For the most part, life goes on as usual for Tan despite the new disruption from curious, connected travellers.

“I’ve been here since I was 18. When I was married, I first learnt the skills from my [then] husband [the original owner of the store],” she says.

“I’ll do this for the rest of my life. I want to help my children, so I’ll do it until I can’t do it anymore.”


A deity named Nezha is worshipped by gamblers for his swift moves and cheeky behavior. YVETTE TAN/MASHABLE

Visitors trying their hand out at the store IMAGE: YVETTE TAN/MASHABLE

Buddhist and Taoist adherents worship hundreds of gods and immortals, and many of these statues are also placed at home for worship. IMAGE: YVETTE TAN/MASHABLE

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