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Saving the Last Taoist Effigy Shop in Singapore With Design

You’re used to seeing design competitions from industry media (raises hand), professional organizations and other institutions. How about one from a 124-year-old Taoist effigy shop in Singapore?


“Established in 1896 and the last of its kind in the glittering city-state today, Say Tian Hng Buddha Shop lies almost forgotten in a corner of touristy Chinatown. It is filled from floor to ceiling with hundreds of wooden statues, some as large as a chair, some as small as an iPhone, some half-carved, others completed in resplendent gold.”


The shop, the last of its kind in Singapore, is run by 89-year-old Tan Chwee Lian and her 68-year-old son—“keepers of a dying heritage craft” of Chinese immigrants who arrived in the country in search of a better life. The matriarch and her family repair and sell effigies of Taoist deities, and now, fourth-generation family members are seeking to reinvent the business so that it can stay in business. And to do so, they’re turning to design.


Joseph Nair


“Design has always been vital to religion,” says Ng Tze Yong, descendent and a former President’s Scholar at Parsons. “It helps people visualize divinity.”


The goal is a relaunching and rebranding of sorts. Currently, the shop’s patrons are temples and the devout—a small, ever-shrinking market. The family believe there’s great potential in offering their wares to an international secular audience—turning “objects of worship into objects of art.” 


Joseph Nair


Joseph Nair


“In Chinese religion, history and mythology, there is an immense cast of memorable characters, with intertwining origin stories,” Ng says. “Most of them are still largely unknown to the West. You don’t need to be a Taoist to appreciate the stories and timeless values they embody … stories tell of devotion, compassion, reconciliation and—very aptly today—courage in the face of injustice.”


The challenge at hand: Redesign a statue of the Monkey God, known for his playfulness, rebellion, intelligence, strength, speed and tenacity.



Joseph Nair


The judges include IDEO designer Jerome Goh, Parsons assistant professor of strategic design and management Rhea Alexander, Singapore Heritage Society executive director Chua Ai Lin, Royal Anthropological Institute fellow Chan Chow Wah, Forest & Whale co-founder Wendy Chua and, of course, Tan Chwee Lian and her son, Ng Yeow Hua. 


The judges will be focused on creativity, respect to the culture and character, and craft. Submissions are due Aug. 9, and after judges select a shortlist, a public vote will be held from Aug. 16–Sept. 6 to choose the final winners.


Prizes range from $200 to $1,500. To find inspiration—as well as some 3D scans of Monkey God statues—drop by the Say Tian Hng Buddha Shop’s website.


Joseph Nair



Nicky Loh


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