As Good As Gold

A wander through the heartlands of Ang Mo Kio might lead you to stumble upon one of Singapore’s last great jewellers.

At first glance into the premises of Da Kwong Jewellery, you might hesitate to part with your ring. Mr Yeung spends most of his time hunched over at a worn workstation at the back of a tiny shop, tucked away at Block 629 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 4. His worktop is dusty, blackened with age; ceramic cups hold a bouquet of pliers, while a half-open drawer reveals pairs of scissors, a coping saw and various other sharp implements that many of us would struggle to name.

But hand over your engagement ring you must. Mr Yeung will slide it across a ring mandrel, test its fit over your finger, and then peer at you over his glasses. “Go for lunch,” he will say. Mrs Yeung, behind the counter, will nod at the wet market nearby. “Come back when you’ve eaten,” she adds, “and it’ll be done by then.”

Squashed next to a warmly lit bread store in the middle of Singapore’s quintessential heartlands, Da Kwong Jewellery is home to one of the last remaining jewellery masters in Singapore. Mr Yeung has been in this line for the past 50 years, beginning his apprenticeship at the age of 16 as a young man in Hong Kong. One of Singapore’s best-kept secrets, Mr Yeung is the go-to man if you need a ring resized, restored, or designed entirely from scratch.

A race against the machines

Energetic, bright and chatty, 65-year-old Mr Yeung looks much younger than he actually is. He works while he talks, the shop ringing with the clatter of Cantonese, his hands moving nonstop even as he regales us with his life stories.

Born in 1952, Mr Yeung left China for Hong Kong to forge a new life with his older brother at the age of eight. His father was lost in the aftermath of the Japanese invasion, and, leaving his mother behind to care for five elder sisters, Mr Yeung and his brother left home and never saw his parents again.

In Hong Kong, the Yeung brothers moved in with an uncle. Even as a child, Mr Yeung knew that he would not have much opportunity to pursue formal education. “I had no money,” he said. “I managed to finish my primary school education, but I knew I had no opportunity to study any further. So I had to master a trade.”

That trade, as it turned out, was goldsmithing. He learned to forge and shape gold from a number of relatives involved in the craft, and even at a tender age was a rapacious learner: a bright-eyed young man, always hungry for more, ready to make his mark in the world. “My family upbringing taught me to be open to learning,” Mr Yeung said. “I was very mature, very punctual, and the master who taught me liked me a lot.”

Quick to anticipate the future, Mr Yeung knew that working in the craft of jewellery would ultimately be a race against technology. To ensure that his skills would not become obsolete, Mr Yeung began to branch out into working with other types of precious metals and gemstones, learning, for example, how to deal with diamond and jade. He prophesised that machinery would eventually automate the work that he was doing, and he was determined to outstrip the pace of progress.

“I wanted to excel, to create a niche for myself,” Mr Yeung said. And he did: through diversifying his skills and years of hard work, he rose rapidly through the ranks in the 1970s and ’80s, and by the time the ’90s rolled around, he was at the top of his trade.

In 1997, Hong Kong’s sovereignty was transferred from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China, and Mr Yeung began to look southward. “I was afraid that the education system would become very communist under Chinese rule,” he said. “I didn’t want my children to grow up there.”

The itch to move was compounded by the fact that Mr Yeung was fast becoming unaffordable for many top jewellery shops in Hong Kong. “My bosses could no longer afford my wage,” he laughed. “They preferred to train new workers from China, because Chinese labour was cheaper!”

And so, together with his family, he moved to Singapore in the late 1990s, starting anew at a shop in Lucky Plaza. Mr Yeung saw Singapore as a brave new world that offered better wages, and was eager to break into the jewellery market here before his competitors could move in and catch up. His career sped on, caught in the fast current of a strong work ethic and a love for his craft. He worked briefly at a jewellery shop in Yishun before settling down at his current shopfront in Ang Mo Kio.

“It’s not about the money anymore,” Mr Yeung said. “I don’t earn much. It’s the satisfaction that counts.”

Put a ring on it

Mr Yeung is a veteran problem-solver, a lover of puzzles. Part of his work now is to design bespoke rings from scratch. On a casual weekday afternoon, a young couple drop by and perch themselves on chairs before a glass display of jade pendants and sapphire rings. They push crumpled scraps of paper over the glass, bearing elementary sketches of their desired ring. Mr Yeung will then spin these uncertain drawings into diamond and gold.

“Sometimes I lose money,” he said. “Resizing a ring from size eighteen to eight, or taking on a redesign that I know will be complicated and time-consuming—I don’t earn a profit. But it’s no longer about making a profit. It’s about testing myself.”

Customers come to him because Mr Yeung can do what machines cannot. He shows us a fragile ring that the customer estimates to be over a hundred years old. All the big-name shops, according to Mr Yeung, were unwilling to take the risk of restoring this ring to its former glory. For Mr Yeung, however, the problem of the delicate old ring was just another maze for him to plot his way through, with the sure and relentless touch of a seasoned cartographer.

Mr and Mrs Yeung expect to retire in two to three years’ time. Their children are not interested in learning the trade, and most jewellery apprentices today find tutelage elsewhere. Mr Yeung’s humble workstation can only hold out for so long against the mathematical precision of technology. Self-deprecatingly, Mr Yeung jokes that his shop is a “no-brand” one, that it runs now on word-of-mouth and passion alone.

But there is an organic creativity to Mr Yeung’s work, a flexibility and an ambition honed through years and years of hands-on experience that isn’t easily found even in the most cutting-edge of computers.

Bellies full, then, you might wander back to the shop after lunch. Mrs Yeung glances up, smiles, and asks you what you have eaten. Mr Yeung beckons you over, holding out a glimmer in his hand. You slip it over your ring finger, and voila: a perfect fit.

Published originally on iremembersg; cached here. All photographs by me.