Offering an insightful journey into the disappearing world of industrial crafts of Jalan Besar, The Machinist is a poignant study of the value and meaning of craft in the modern age. They do refer to themselves as either artists or craftsmen.

Image credit: Forest and Whale and The Machinist

They do refer to themselves as either artists or craftsmen. The quiet dignity of the skilled workers across the disappearing vestiges of industrial artisanship in Singapore’s Jalan Besar district reveals a collaged portrait of trades seen as neither extraordinary nor different by the artisans themselves. With their laborious fabrication techniques now deemed nearly obsolete by the modern use-and-dispose consumer culture’s preference for mass production, their stories still ring as integral to the rise and growth of the country and reveal a rich, cumulative cultural history that extends beyond Jalan Besar and raises questions of social conservation.

The intention to commemorate these quickly disappearing communities of industrial crafts and trades was the principal aim of Wendy Chua, Yuki Mitsuyasu and Xin Xiaochang’s beautifully composed book The Machinist – a collection of conversations, personal stories and observations of the lives of the skilled artisans that make up a part of the older generation’s network of makers across the former auto-repair district of Jalan Besar. What initially begin as an effort to document the work and memories of the last machinist, Henry Yee Chin Hoon, evolved into a documentation of an entire community of everyday craftsmen through the lens of design, presenting a different perspective on the disappearing utilitarian trades standing in direct opposition of the prevalent throwaway culture of mass consumption of the present day.

The story of the vanishing craft of Mr. Yee Chin Hoon unfolds naturally, first with the recollections of experiences of the three designers/writers as they immerse themselves into apprenticeship roles in the machinist’s workshop, and later, as a series of musings from artisans, design luminaries, writers and professors sometimes paying tribute to, sometimes ruminating on the role of craftsmanship in the age of mass production.

The poetic and nostalgic quality of a neighbourhood auto parts workshop takes shape through the tapestry of the stories told. The gritty disparate machine parts, all produced by hand, form a connection with the surrounding context – playing an integral role in shaping a meticulous image of a grassroots maker community. The craftsmen – the ordinary people – depict a time that feels removed from what most readers will ever experience in their lifetime, yet strangely comforting and nostalgic at the same time.

The lamentation on the loss of craft in the Computer Age, though the book’s stories do take time to muse on the question of “What’s next?”, ultimately opens the door to a promising new chapter with the rising generation of makers and artisans that will carry on the torch in their own way. As new production techniques, like 3D printing and augmented reality environment making, emerge and become integrated in the new generation of designers’ ways of creating, the spirit of the machinist, the heroic image of an artist figure labouring in his workshop, will not die. It will simply adapt and change with times.

Encapsulating this feeling of optimism, the poignant words found on the last pages of The Machinist look ahead toward a hopeful future: “The key, it seems, is not to compete against artificial intelligence but to have the clarity to differentiate between the thinking man and the learning machine. Perhaps, the craftsman – who trusts his hands and derives joy from the act of making, with his tireless work ethics and single-tasking approach – can illuminate man’s role in the future of industry.”

Find out more or purchase The Machinist here or visit Hup Yick Engineering at 84 Horne Road, Singapore 209081.

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