Click, click, click as the hammer hit the punch, each time a letter would be impressed onto the small circular shaped pewter to spell my name. This would be the start of my lesson at the School of Hard Knocks giving us the hands on experience of creating our very own bowl using the same techniques that are still being used today to craft the pewter.
Mun Kuen our instructor took a piece of pewter and with her withered hands she placed it on the wooden mould. She rhythmically tapped away with a large wooden mallet, rotating the pewter slightly as the mallet makes contact. “The mould is your friend, you have to embrace it, without the help of the mould you will just have a dented flat piece of pewter, with the help of your mould you can curve it,” and before I knew it she tapped the pewter three more times and she was done. You could tell she had been doing this a long time, her timing was precise and each tap curved the bowl to perfection.
“Now it’s your turn” Mun said as she handed me the mallet. Clang, clang, clang then the pewter buckled. “Softly,” cried out Mun, “don’t need force”. I took a deep breath and slowly, I lightly tapped on the buckled pewter. The buckle slowly disappeared, a smile appeared on my face, I could now start to shape the bowl. I look over at my wife and her face is beaming as she just completed her task. My son Rei would soon be finished but I still had a little bit to go. I tapped and tapped and slowly it formed, the circular pewter curved, the base deepened with the mould, I remembered Mun’s comments “embrace the mould”. A few more taps and my masterpiece would be complete.
Mun handed out certificates of completion, first to my son and then to my wife. She hesitates to give me mine.”I don’t know if you’ll need this” she says laughing. She takes me by the arm, I catch a glimpse of her bright pink lipstick, her eyes peering through her thick rimmed glasses. She leads us to a cabinet, her weathered hand rests on my arm as she reaches in and takes a melon shaped teapot. She holds it firmly in a tight grip. “Let me tell you a story about this teapot” she says drawing our attention.
Imagine it is 1941 and the Japanese are advancing, people are starving, bombs are falling”. I’ve been instantly transported to a muddy field in Kuala Lumpur. “A villager by the name of Ah Kam is in the field, looking for wheat to feed his hungry family, when suddenly he spies a melon shaped teapot in the mud. As he bends down to pick it up shrapnel whizzes by, narrowly misses his head. The pewter pot saves his life and from that day on he entertains visitors with the story while serving them tea in his lucky pewter pot.”
Kuala Lumpur was carved out of pewter. In 1857 a handful of Chinese miners arrived invited by a local ruler to work in the tin mines of Selangor’s Klang Valley. By 1885, it was a boom town when a young pewter smith named Yong Koon began making pewter candle stands and incense burners for altars of Chinese prospectors before progressing to exquisite objects for British Colonial officers and their wives
Before I had donned the trademark blue apron and bent over the well-worn benches. We were given a tour of the factory. I had witnessed the skilled craftsmen casting, filing, polishing, soldering and hammering away as well as inspect a young worker punch rows of dimples on a beer tankard that takes more than six months to learn. It’s the 21st century but still the workers make most of the Royal Selangor pewter by hand. The employees seemed very content to work here and the company rewards the employee by placing a pewter mould of their hand on the wall for every person who serves five years with the company.
Mun Kuen, the guide continues with her story.”One day in the early 1970’s, a friend of mine happens to visit Ah Ram, she says.”As they share a pot of tea he mentions that I work in a pewter factory and offers to bring the pot in here for polishing. When the lucky pot was brought into the factory and polished some workers recognized the original Yong Koon’s touchmark on the bottom, she says pausing for effect. “And so my grandfather’s original creation came home to rest”. Even though, I’m sure she’s told the story over 1000 times before, Mun Kuen still lights up as though she has just found out about the maker for the first time.
We moved back to the bench, finished by polishing our bowls before wrapping it in the tissue paper and hiding it away in the Royal Selangor box along with the certificate and apron that we had worn on the day. My pewter bowl may not save my life but whenever I’m eating snacks I’ll not only remember making my bowl but also the beautiful Mun Kuen.
open daily 9am – 5am
No appointment necessary except for the school of Hard Knocks
Tours of the factory are available in English, Malay, Mandarin and Japanese
Admission is free for factory tour
School of Hard Knocks 30 minute lesson 60 RM per person.