Tuesday 17 February 2015

Lampshade maker keeps family trade shining bright

He has continued his father's craft since taking over business in 1962
By Isaac Neo, The Straits Times, 16 Feb 2015

HE HAS made lampshades for people as distinguished as Queen Elizabeth II. But when he retires, the craft will probably be lost to Singapore.

Mr Hans Sengalrayan, 79, whose Dutch-Indonesian family moved here from Indonesia in 1950, is believed to be the last lampshade maker in Singapore.

He has made shades for over 50 years, having taken over the family trade from the age of 26 in 1962, after a stint as a clerk at Commercial Union, an insurance firm. His parents had left the business to him when they moved to Malaysia to escape Singapore's unstable political situation then.

Mr Sengalrayan, the only one of four children to continue his father's work, has run the Dutch Lampshade Shop ever since. It has moved several times, from its original location in River Valley to Orchard Road, Upper Thomson and then Tampines Street 93 in 1984.

Mr Sengalrayan makes all his lampshades by hand, crafting the base of the lamp and soldering the metal wiring into a frame for the lampshade, while his wife Connie, 60, helps to sew and fix the fabrics onto the frame.

A lampshade can take a few days to make and cost a few hundred dollars, depending on the size.

When Queen Elizabeth II visited Singapore in 2006, Raffles Hotel commissioned Mr Sengalrayan to make the lampshades for her suite. His past clients also included the now-defunct Omni Marco Polo Hotel and Singapore's first president, Mr Yusof Ishak.

However, he lost most of his clientele, employees in the British High Commission, when they left after Singapore became independent in 1965. He gets at most 15 orders a month now, a far cry from the times when he could make "as many as he could make".

One of his customers, Dr Lisa Tombalakian, a part-time university lecturer, said Mr Sengalrayan knew the colour and size of the lampshade needed to restore an antique lamp to its former glory just by looking at the lamp.

"When you look at the lampshades, you can just feel the love in the craft, something which lampshades made in the factory don't have," she said.

Mr Sengalrayan's most memorable experience with a customer was when a British Embassy employee demanded her money back. "I told her, 'You're not getting your money back', because she was so rude and called me unpleasant names. The next day, someone from the embassy came. I told them the whole story and asked them to get her to write a letter of apology," he said.

"The next day, she came with a letter, apologised, and she got her money back."

Bernadine, 28, a researcher and the youngest of Mr Sengalrayan's five children, remembers seeing him work and the passion and hard work he put into his craft.

Asked why no one seemed to want to continue the business, she replied: "Because it's not a very viable business in Singapore. Not many people appreciate the quality of the handicraft."

Mr Sengalrayan has no plans to retire yet - and he is willing to pass on his craft to anyone who wants to take over.

On what made his job worthwhile, he said: "I brought up my children and I saw a change. My eldest daughter went to university and, for a small man like me, that was already something big because I never could go.

"Now, my granddaughter is going to become a lawyer, maybe working as a government servant. And that's the fruits of labour."

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