Craftsmanship Chronicles: From Molten Metal to Masterpieces at the Royal Selangor

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As someone who has always been captivated by the beauty and the historical significance of traditional and local craftsmanship, Royal Selangor Pewter comes to mind with high regard. Since childhood, pewter has been one of the oldest gifts that my family has received as a gesture of gratitude or appreciation. Many of these exquisite pieces now proudly grace our family display cabinet. That said, let me take you on a journey through the halls of Royal Selangor in Malaysia, sharing my personal experience along the way.

Pewter bust of the founder – Yong Koon seating gloriously at their in-house museum.

Royal Selangor Pewter established itself in 1885 when the founder Yong Koon came to Malaysia from China and started handcrafting pewter objects that were mainly used for ceremonial purposes. In the very heart of Kuala Lumpur, he started his quaint little shop – Ngeok Foh in Hakka, and Yu He in Mandarin Pinyin (translated meant Jade Peace).  Pretty soon, with the arrival of the British in Malaya, products were expanded, however, due to family feuds the four sons of Yong Koon split the pewter business into Selangor Pewter, Malayan Pewter, Tiger Pewter, and Lion Pewter. However, as our wonderful guide of the day, Poh shared, it was only the Selangor Pewter, which was run by Yong Koon’s third son – Yong Peng Kai that survived and was eventually endorsed in 1992 by the then Sultan of Selangor, Sultan Salahuddin, and its name became Royal Selangor (dropping the pewter name to pave room for expansion to other products with other materials).

Pewter bust on display at the factory of Peng Kai.
The touchmarks were created from the time Ngeok Foh was founded.

Taking a walk down memory lane, Poh not only shared the beautiful history of Royal Selangor but also showed some intricate masterpieces that were used as the early form of currency in Malaysia – Tin money.  Throughout the 15th to 18th centuries in the states of Selangor, Perak, and Negeri Sembilan, tin money or otherwise known as animal money was used as a means of exchange. These were commonly seen in the forms of crocodiles, tortoises, beetles, and various types of birds. Another form that came later in history was the pohon pitis (money tree in English) – inspired by the Chinese traders. The only difference one could spot was the Arabic inscriptions as opposed to the traditional Chinese characters.

Tin money: Poh explains the early form of Malayan currency and the iconic money tree.

Among the many artifacts that sit in this space, the most alluring of them all was the melon teapot that took the spotlight for saving a life. Legend has it that “During World War l, Ah Ham recklessly raids warehouses in a desperate attempt to find food. As he reaches down to retrieve the melon-shaped teapot on the floor, he hears shrapnel whistle past just above his head. The teapot saved his life! Soon after,
he regaled his friends with his wartime stories
and how the teapot helped him cheat death.
The teapot is an original by Yong Koon, stamped
with his yu he zu xi touchmark. It takes pride of place in the Royal Selangor archives.” Henceforth being dubbed the Lucky Teapot.

Royal Selangor has grown a lot over the years. They have even been recognized by the Guinness Book of Records for having the world’s largest pewter tankard. You can find their products in stores all over the world, including well-known ones like Harrods and John Lewis in the UK. They have also acquired Comyns, one of the oldest and most prestigious silversmiths. Royal Selangor owns a rich collection of over 35,000 historical molds, tools, patterns, and drawings that showcase different art movements throughout history – such as Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical, and Art Nouveau. Not forgetting their longstanding relationship with Selberan, another pioneer in fine silverware in Malaysia.

The Wall of Hands

Walking down the halls of Royal Selangor to the factory, I couldn’t help but be filled with a sense of nostalgia. As there it was—a wall dedicated solely to the amazing employees who had selflessly poured their hearts and souls into their work. The Wall of Hands is made entirely of handprints belonging to the employees of Royal Selangor who have worked a minimum of 5 years. There are approximately 940 handprints to date. The wall stands as a testament to the bonds formed within the company, the friendships forged through shared experiences, and the collective pursuit of excellence. It showcased the rich tapestry of talents and personalities that made Royal Selangor the distinguished brand it is today.

Getting-in-on it hands-on!

Now that we are done with touring, it was time to get our aprons on and get those muscles moving! Royal Selangor offers two workshops for her visitors to get an immersive experience on a smaller scale of what they have seen in the factory.

First up is The School of Hard Knocks, and as titled, there is a lot of knocking going on here. We were lucky to have a fantastic instructor – Mr. Hafiz to guide us through. For the price of RM 75, you can knock your heart away and make an ice-cream bowl. Within this workshop, you will be guided in knocking the tin plate into a bowl. It can be a tedious job if you do not pay close attention as you might end up hammering your own fingers in the process or twisting your wrist from hammering too hard.

School of Hard Knocks experience

Start of by metal stamping your name to the bottom of the plate.

Hammering the plate into a bowl using the mould provided.

Once done, each participant takes home a certificate of completion, their “knocked” ice-cream bowl and the apron.

Next up is the molten tin and mould experience with The Foundry workshop. Here you get to experience creating a pewter accessory from scratch for the price of RM180 and once again under the guidance of Mr Hafiz, we got a chance to create using moulds and freehand. Firstly, gear up! Protection first with your apron and gloves as the pewter jar is hot at heated at approximately 250 celsius. Next up, choose from the preset rubber moulds and affix it to the clamps. “Not too tight,” said Mr Hafiz as the molten needs to get into the small crevices and quick as pewter solidifies pretty easily. Then once casted, all we need to do is set it aside until it cools down before we can remove it from the mould. This process takes about 3-5 minutes long and seeing as the workshop duration is an hour, one can cast and recast as many time till you are satisfied. Once that is completed comes the finishing where you will do a scotching and buffing to polish your creations. Finally, you will wash it with some thinner to remove the black stains from the polishing process before bringing it back to Mr Hafiz for some extra TLC finishing.

Crafting without the aid of templates was an entirely different experience altogether and, Mr Hafiz made it appear effortless. The reality hits you like a thunderbolt when you start to experiment on your own as it posed quite a challenge. However, creating something from scratch became addictive, and I couldn’t help but crave for more opportunities to engage in the art of pewter-making.

Freehand sculpture created during The Foundry Workshop

Overall, this is one experience that I would encourage everyone to take some time off to try and indulge in. You can make a purchase for the workshops via Royal Selangor Visitor Center site or like me, (collect points and) make a booking on Klook. And, if you do go there or have been there, share your tell with me too!

Explorers at work: Myself (center) with Song Yann (left) and Afeef (right) after the hammering session. Photo credits – Mr Hafiz.
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