KUALA SELANGOR: Once all-important members of society, masons and smiths are on the verge of extinction as their handmade items are being quickly made obsolete by mass-produced factory goods.
In addition, the work of these craftspeople is arduous, and the young are reluctant to leave their comfortable desk jobs to take up the tools of this trade.
Facing the lack of an heir and apprentice is one stonemason in Kuala Selangor, whose workshop is little more than a dilapidated hut at the end of an unmapped trail.
For the past 40 years of his life, 64-year-old Kuah Leong Chan has been tirelessly making long lasting tombstones for Muslim clients.
A man of unique talent and skills, he carefully carves tombstones out of granite blocks with nothing but his hands and tools, rather than the usual cement mould or machine-made mass produced ones.
“The profits are not much, but what is important is the sincerity in your heart with regards to your work,” he told FMT.
The Chinese stonemason learned the skills and of his trade from his late father, and the work that he does is nothing close to comfortable or easy.
At 6.30am every day, he cycles into the forest where his hut is located to begin his work.
“It doesn’t matter how big the granite rock is,” he said. “I still have to break it apart with my hands, for there’s no machine capable of doing that.”
With a sizeable chunk of granite and his chisels, he gets to work carving a tombstone out of the block.
He does this with specially designed “diamond” chisels of varying sizes and functions.
Each tombstone is made with much love and dedication and carries the mark of a skilled craftsman. It averages four days to complete a single tombstone, though that depends on its size.
It is interesting to note that the tombstones he produces differ in size and shape depending on age and gender respectively.
As he concentrates on his backbreaking work, he waits and hopes for someone to come by and place an order for a tombstone for a recently deceased loved one.
With details given, he can provide his client with an engraved tombstone within the hour.
The Jawi engravings are chiselled into the tombstone, rather than being written or printed on.
Cement tombstones, says Kuah, grow fragile when the nails in them start to rust and they will eventually shatter.
Kuah, ever the honest man, insisted that making a profit should not come at the cost of exploiting his clientèle.
He dislikes the thought of charging clients a high price so the highest fee he charges for his workmanship is RM200.
Given how rare it is to find anyone who does the work he does, he truly might be the last of his profession in this country.
Out of the four granite tombstone makers he knows, three have passed away and the last is in poor health; leaving him as the last granite tombstone maker that he knows of.
“My ancestors were also tombstone masons; this has a been a trade passed down for generations. At first, my knowledge of Jawi was lacking.”
“Like it or not, I still do what I have to do as I do not come from a privileged family. I had to learn Jawi despite it not being my natural language.”
“I tell my clients to write what they want inscribed on paper, and I then carve it out on the tombstone.”
Ironically, he is the one now who is consulted on the accuracy of the Jawi descriptions as many people today are incapable of writing or reading Jawi themselves.
Asked why he is sticking to this line of work with so many other jobs available, he says that he can not let the trade of five generations of his family just disappear unceremoniously.
“My ancestors originally carved Chinese tombstones, but switched to making Muslim ones as there are more Muslim clients here. If I decide to do something else, who will continue this work?”
Rather morosely, he laments that he is aware that no one wants to carve granite tombstones in an old hut like him and he knows that the trade will end with him.
He admits that he is no longer as strong as he used to be, but insists that he will do what he does best until his last breath as he may be the last of his kind.
“People come all the way here to place orders for tombstones; folks from Johor, Kelantan, Indonesia, with even Bruneian nobility coming to me.”
Asked why he did has not pass on his skills to his children, he bluntly questions, “Are they interested?”
His voice cracked a little at the thought that no one will be carrying on his legacy. He does hold on to the hope that someone will eventually be willing to learn from him and be his apprentice.
“It’s not that I don’t want to teach people, but give them a week or two and they are gone. My longest lasting apprentice only stayed for two years. What can I do?”
The lack of interest in his craft has more or less sealed its fate.
“I like to work honestly, it doesn’t matter that I sit in this shabby hut, provided that I die in peace.”