Antique furniture restorer in George Town calls it a day after more than 80 years

Yuen Siew Lan has been restoring antique furniture and layering gold leaf on antique furniture for almost 40 years. ― Pictures by KE Ooi
Yuen Siew Lan has been restoring antique furniture and layering gold leaf on antique furniture for almost 40 years. ― Pictures by KE Ooi

GEORGE TOWN, Aug 29 ― Teenager Guan Ah Kow and his family left Shanghai to come to the then-Malaya in the early 1920s and settled down in Penang.

After learning carpentry, Guan opened a shop making custom furniture sometime in the 1930s called Wah Dah Furnishing.

In 1954, Guan died, leaving behind eight young children and his widow.

His third child Yuen Siew Lan was only 12 years old at the time but had already started learning the family trade.

Yuen painstakingly layers each gold leaf onto the motifs of a furniture part.
Yuen painstakingly layers each gold leaf onto the motifs of a furniture part.

“All of us lived upstairs so we grew up knowing the ins and outs of the trade and business,” she said in an interview with Malay Mail Online.

She said after her father died, her uncle took care of the business until he too died in 1978.

Yuen took over the business then and has been keeping it going until now. She plans to close it for good on August 21.

“I am 75 years old now, I can't do this much longer and there's no one else to take over from me,” she said.

These gold motifs on a Peranakan furniture are not painted but each are painstakingly layered with gold leaf by Yuen.
These gold motifs on a Peranakan furniture are not painted but each are painstakingly layered with gold leaf by Yuen.

The furniture shop may have been around for over 80 years and located along the busy Burmah Road next to a temple, but it is barely noticeable as the building is set away from the road within its own ample grounds.

Other than specialising in making wooden furniture, the shop is also known for its meticulous restoration of antique furniture.

“We started restoring antique furniture when there was an increase in demand for antiques back in the 1960s,” she said.

One of Yuen's specialties is the application of gold leaf for antique furniture and ancestral tablets.

Many antique furniture, particularly those from the Peranakan era, were covered in gold leaf but some of these had rubbed off over the years.

“Applying gold leaf on the furniture is tedious work, it needs a lot of patience and a steady hand to make sure it's done properly,” she said.

The last worker at Wah Dah Furnishing rushing to finish orders before they close down the business by the end of this month.
The last worker at Wah Dah Furnishing rushing to finish orders before they close down the business by the end of this month.

The gold filigree and motifs of these pieces of furniture were all painstakingly layered with gold leaf and Yuen would spend hours layering the gold leaf back onto them.

“Most of the antique furniture we get are in bad condition so we have to repair the parts, sometimes we have to replace some parts and reconstruct the carvings on them,” she said, adding that it could take months to restore just one piece of furniture.

After repairing the furniture, they will paint it and after the paint has dried, the parts that needed to be layered with gold leaf will be brushed with a thin layer of teak oil.

“We have to make sure the oil is not too damp or too dry before I start layering the gold leaf on it slowly to make sure it is smooth,” she said.

This means she has to make sure that the gold leaf is meticulously layered onto the motifs for a smooth finish before the teak oil dries out.

She said not many people have the patience to learn to layer on the gold leaf especially when it comes to smaller complicated motifs.

“We are finally moving out of this place after living here all our lives,” she said.

Yuen, who is single, lives with her two sisters on the first floor, above the workshop and office.

“My father started renting this place when he opened the shop and we continued renting it all these years but now, since I am retiring and closing the business, it is time for us to move to our own home in Island Glades,” she said.

She said the rising cost of supplies coupled with the GST for the gold leaf were also part of the reason she wanted to shutter the business.

“I can't take the rising costs anymore and I am too old to continue doing this, at most I can do this for another five years.

“It is time to say goodbye... even if I miss this place, there's nothing more I can do,” she said.

It took Yuen many hours of painstaking labour layering the gold leaf onto the motifs on this Peranakan furniture.
It took Yuen many hours of painstaking labour layering the gold leaf onto the motifs on this Peranakan furniture.