Malaysia Bagus News
Malaysia Bagus News
GEORGE TOWN: In the early 20th century, Carnarvon Street was the place for funeral processions as many coffin makers operated there, taking advantage of the place’s proximity to the Sia Boey canal, through which sampans would transport wood from the Malayan hinterland.
Naturally, paper oblation artisans and shops offering Chinese prayer items sprouted along the street, offering a support system for the coffin makers. Until today, the older Hokkien-speaking generation refers to the street as kua-cha-kay, meaning “coffin street”.
But today, there are only two coffin shops on the street. One of them is Hock Lean Seng, which has been in business for nearly 100 years. It used to make coffins on the five-foot way, taking at least 10 days to complete one.
Business is not as brisk today as it was in earlier years since modern undertakers have virtually monopolised the market.
But the shop still attracts patrons.
It is currently run by Yeap Chin Boon, a third-generation coffin maker who is continuing a legacy left by his maternal grandfather, who opened the shop in 1922.
The last matriarch of the family, Tan Chai Im, was the torchbearer of the business, guiding the family members on matters of Chinese funeral traditions until she died in 2015 at the age of 85.
Yeap took over responsibility for the business in 1985 and, until two decades ago, had artisans making made-to-order coffins. But as orders increased and handiwork became laborious, the shop switched to made-to-order coffins from factories in Sungai Petani.
He says his four siblings, close to their sixties, are in line to take over from him. His two children, in their 30s, have no interest in the enterprise. Nor do his nephews and nieces.
“It is not hip or fashionable; only those who are passionate will want to do this,” the man fondly known as Uncle Boon said in an interview with FMT.
Today, inside Yeap’s family-owned pre-war shophouse, stand racks holding about a dozen coffins, ranging in price from RM800 to RM15,000. The expensive ones are made with high-end jati wood, but are rarely sold. They have ornate designs, felt lining on the inside and plexiglass panels through which the deceased are viewed.
Yeap showed a casket from more than 50 years ago, designed for Buddhist monks who wanted to be cremated seated upright. It is not for sale and he no longer makes them but it remains a showpiece at his shop.
Those visiting the shop are given RM1 ang pows, which they must spend on sweets for good luck as it is a kind of taboo for the Chinese to visit a coffin shop.
Yeap has served both the wealthiest families and the downtrodden. He says he offers all necessary services for a funeral, allowing people to pick and choose what they need although it has become trendy in the funeral service industry to charge a lump sum on a package loaded with items that are not needed.
He has nine daily-paid freelance workers who are in charge of dressing up the deceased, decorating the casket, and preparing refreshments and towels for mourners.
Yeap does not like the idea of luxury cars being turned into hearses, holding on to a more practical van or a lorry. He offers what he says are “generous discounts” to those who cannot really afford a send-off for their loved ones.
There is a popular belief that funeral services have been doing good business over the past 17 months because of Covid-19, but Yap says there are only “one to two customers” a day and sometimes none at all. He notes that only health officials are allowed to handle the burying or cremation of those infected with Covid-19.
Yeap’s only marketing method is word of mouth and he has maintained the prices of his coffins despite the rising cost of timber due to repeated lockdowns over the past year or so.
“I believe this period is a test for us,” he said. “I say let us suffer first and reap the benefits later. Last journeys are important. There are traditions to follow.”
He quoted a Chinese saying that advises against making judgements about a living person: “Don’t judge people before you hear the hammering of four nails on a coffin.”
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