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Piecing together the past

The Straits Times | Natasha Ann Zachariah | Monday, Apr 28, 2014

A craftman working to restore a Chinese pavilion at the new Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) campus at 8 Somapah Road, behind the Max Pavilion at the Singapore Expo.

The antique Chinese buildings film star Jackie Chan donated to Singapore are getting spruced up before making their public debut next year.

The Singapore University of Technology and Design, at 8 Somapah Road, behind the Max Pavilion at the Singapore Expo, will be the new home of the historic structures from the Hong Kong action star.

The university awarded a tender to TKT Development, which then brought in Suzhou master craftsman Zhu Hua Ming, 46, to restore the architectural gems. The university declined to say how much the restoration works cost.

The buildings, from China's southern Anhui province, are said to date back to the Qing and Ming dynasties, around 370 years ago, and will be displayed in the university's new permanent Changi campus. They will be located near the student hostels and faculty residences.

Mr Zhu and his team of 24 craftsmen are working on a pavilion, an opera stage and two houses, named Da Tong and Du Zhe, after places in China's Zhejiang province. Their work includes staining the wood pillars and beams of the 12m-tall pavilion, which was built during the early Qing dynasty. At least six types of wood, such as pine, fir and maple, were used in its construction.

The team also has to fix some broken stone columns in the opera stage structure. To do so, the craftsmen are embedding a stainless-steel rod in the structure to stabilise it. Once repaired, the stage will be used for performances by students and faculty members.

The team will also retile the roofs of the houses using made-to-order tiles from China and put in new timber flooring. The houses, each about 7m tall and 10m wide, will be displayed side by side and used as event spaces.

Assembly work began last October. Last month, there was a roof beam- raising ceremony for the houses.

The good condition of the pieces is making the assembly process a lot easier, says Dr Yeo Kang Shua, who is overseeing the restoration project.

"A majority of the parts are still intact so we just have to piece them back together carefully," says Dr Yeo, an assistant professor of architecture and sustainable design at the university. "There are signs of degradation, but it is common for buildings of this age."

In 2009, Chan donated the four buildings to Singapore, reportedly after talks with the Hong Kong government to find a home for them went nowhere.

The structures were part of his collection of 10 buildings which he bought for an unknown sum. These were kept in storage before he donated four to Singapore.

He expressed interest last year in donating the rest of the buildings to Singapore, although no decision has been made.

The Suzhou craftsmen, based in Singapore for the duration of the project, are using mainly old techniques to restore the structures. All team members are specialists, including carpenters, tilers, masons, painters and carvers. Most of them are more than 50 years old; the youngest is 32.

Mr Zhu, from Suzhou's Wuzhong district, started as a carpenter craftsman and picked up other trades along the way. He named his 11-year-old restoration firm Kuai Xiang, after the Ming dynasty chief engineer who designed the Forbidden City in Beijing, one of Suzhou's most famous sons.

"I thought it was good to have skills where I could use my hands," says Mr Zhu on choosing a trade where one trained for three years to qualify before working towards master status for many more. "Now, a lot of people don't want to do it anymore. The younger ones have moved to the city to work, so it's hard to find people to do this."

natashaz@sph.com.sg

This article was published on April 26 in The Straits Times.

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