GEORGE TOWN, May 9 — Penang’s last traditional signboard maker Kok Ah Wah may soon be calling it quits as business dwindled to almost zero since the first movement control order (MCO) in 2020.
And as if that was not bad enough, Kok had to move out of the shop space where he (and his father before him) had been working from for over 80 years.
The 83-year-old moved last August after the landlord refused to give him a discount and had even threatened to raise the rent, despite knowing his business was suffering due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“After the MCO in March, business dropped tremendously and we were not doing very well so we asked the landlord to give us some discount but instead, they told us that they were planning to increase the rent and that we should be glad that they didn’t,” Kok’s wife, Loh Eng Mooi, said.
She said they were paying RM1,000 for only the front portion of a shophouse on Queen Street in George Town.
“We only use half of the shophouse, not even the whole shophouse and the business has been there for over 80 years,” she said.
Kok’s father, Kok Ying Chow, came from Guangdong, China when he was 14 years old and set up the Kok Ying Chow Signboard Maker shop sometime in the early 1930s.
“My father apprenticed with a master in China before he came over to start his own shop here,” Kok said.
Kok learned the trade from his father at the age of 12 and has been in the trade since then.
“I took over the business fully in the 1950s and have been doing this all my life,” he said, when met at his home.
The signboards can cost anything from a few hundred ringgit to thousands of ringgit, depending on the size.
Prior to the pandemic, Kok would receive between 10 to 14 orders per month but after the MCO, it went down to one to two per month.
Kok relocated his equipment and materials back to his home in Batu Lanchang after closing the shop.
“I am semi-retired now, I will still take orders as we still have regular customers who would call and place orders,” he said.
He said there were orders from other states and even from Singapore and he would send it over using Poslaju.
However, this year orders have been few and far between with only one or two orders over a stretch of a few months.
Kok is known to be the last traditional signboard maker in Penang who still hand carves Chinese and English words onto wooden boards for company and shop signboards.
It is a tedious process that can take between two weeks to a month for one signboard and due to Kok’s age, it might take even longer.
Loh, who helps Kok paint and apply gold leaf on the carved words, said it is also time for Kok to ease into retirement.
“The materials are now more expensive, even the gold leaf price has increased so costs are high and some customers are not willing to pay for hand carved signboards nowadays,” she said.
As for continuity of the trade, Loh said their daughter learnt some of the skills from Kok and sometimes would come over to help him.
“She has the wood-carving skills, so this skill will not die out,” she said.
Kok does not have his own website or Facebook page as he prefers to be contacted by phone.
Ironically, Kok’s business was one of the local shops in George Town that won gold status under the cultural continuity recognition category of the George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI) Heritage Recognition and Awards 2020.
The gold status is for traditional shops and traders that have been in operation for between 50 and 99 years.
Kok Ying Chow Signboard Maker
(formerly at 41, Queen Street, George Town)