Transforming ICH Businesses During A Pandemic

A participant attempts the craft of Taoist effigy-making, under the encouraging gaze of 87-year-old Madam Tan Chwee Lian, the 2nd generation owner of Say Tian Hng Buddha Shop © Joseph Nair

In 2021, the National Heritage Board of Singapore launched an Organisation Transformation Grant (OTG) to support business transformation efforts by intangible cultural heritage (ICH) practitioners and heritage businesses as part of the enhancements to Singapore’s COVID-19 Arts and Culture Resiliency Package.

The main objectives of the grant are to support grounds-up digital or non-digital transformation efforts by practitioners and businesses in the areas of product; people; process; and systems, and in doing so, to ensure that their trades and businesses are geared up for long-term sustainable growth.

Since its launch in June 2021, the OTG has supported a total of eight ICH practitioners and heritage businesses including a traditional effigy-making shop, a soy sauce maker, a headstone engraver, a rangoli artist, a traditional Hainanese bakery, a traditional food establishment, a traditional perfume maker and a pottery company that operates one of the two remaining dragon kilns in Singapore.

The transformation efforts supported by the grant include the upgrading of equipment to increase and improve production; the use of new software for design and production; the use of digital platforms and tools to increase education and outreach efforts; and the development of social media campaigns to raise public awareness of both craft and product.

4th generation owner and apprentice Ng Tze Yong introducing the origin myth of Xuan Tian Shang Di, one of the most powerful in the Taoist pantheon of deities, during a workshop © Joseph Nair
One of the heritage businesses which received grant support is Say Tian Hng Buddha Shop, a 4th generation family business that has been making, selling and repairing Taoist effigies since 1896.

The shop received grant support for two of its projects comprising a project to develop content for a children’s cultural education programme and another project to build up a digital database of 3D scans of 30 masterpiece artefacts hand-carved decades ago by the shop’s former master craftsmen who have since passed away. The preservation of the sculptures’ designs via 3D scanning technology will allow the shop to replicate them while retaining its renowned artisanal quality and ensuring that the knowledge and skills of the family could be retained and passed down.

According to Ng Tze Yong, apprentice craftsman and 4th generation owner of Say Tian Hng Buddha Shop: “For ICH practitioners, survival in its truest sense means surviving as a business, not only surviving as an archival record or exhibit after the business itself has disappeared. To do this boils down to economics: demand and supply, revenue and expenditure, codification and transfer of skills. This is what the grant is doing for us. It helps us create new products and services, find new customers, and become a more resilient organisation. It’s called the OTG but for us, it’s more than transformation, really. It’s existential.”

For more information about the OTG, please click on the following link :