Singapore Infopedia


Tinsmithing, a vanishing trade in Singapore, involved the manufacture and repairing of a variety of containers made out of metals such as tin, zinc and aluminium. Tinsmiths in Singapore were mainly from the Hakka community.1 Their shops-cum-workshops were located along Temple Street, Rochor Road, Philip Street, Tanjong Pagar and Nankin Street,2 and were a common feature along five-foot ways in old Singapore.3

Most tinsmiths came to Singapore from Guangdong province in China. Tinsmithing was often a family business where the skill was passed down from one generation to the next by way of apprenticeship. However, some picked up the trade after arriving in Singapore by observing metalwork processes and perfecting it on their own over the years.4 Their services were mostly utilised by housewives, gardeners and foodstall owners.5 At the height of the tinsmith trade in the 1960s, there were some 20 shops in the Chinatown area. However, many later relocated to flatted-factory zones in Kallang and Geylang. To survive, some took to modernising their businesses by partially or fully mechanising their operations. By the late 1980s, there were only three to four shops left in Chinatown. 

Tinsmiths manufactured different kinds of metal products such as dustbins, dust pans, pails, dippers, funnels, large cups, watering cans and bath tubs. They also made incense holders painted in red with gold Chinese characters commonly found outside homes and shophouses.7 The raw materials of the trade were zinc, copper, aluminium, galvanised iron and steel, some of which were recycled from discarded tins.8

Tinsmithing was a laborious trade as most of the manufacturing process was manual. Apart from stock items, half of their orders were from customers seeking custom-made designs. For example, bakers would request baking tins and moulds of non-standard sizes and unusual shapes. The tinsmith would design, draw and bend the metal into shapes and designs according to the customer’s specifications. Shapes were traced on a sheet of metal and cut out – using industrial scissors initially, but this process was later done with electric drills and cutters. The metal was bent using bending machines. Different parts were soldered and joined to make a finished product.9

With the rise of plastic products, automation and the cost of raw materials, as well as the lack of business successors, the traditional tinsmith industry was in decline by the 1990s.10 The remaining businesses survived on repairs and orders for customised designs that were difficult for machines to make. These include advertising signs, steaming vats for restaurants and special moulds and utensils for cooking.11 


Naidu Ratnala Thulaja

1. Margaret Sullivan, Can Survive, La: Cottage Industries in High-Rise Singapore (Singapore: Graham Brash, 1993), 140 (Call no. RSING 338.634095957 SUL); Siew Kai Lan, oral history interview by Chong Soon Yew, 2 June 1988, transcript and MP3 audio, 29:46, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 000933), 8.
2. Lo-Ang Siew Ghim and Chua Chee Huan, eds., Vanishing Trades of Singapore (Singapore: Oral History Department, 1992), 86. (Call no. RSING 338.642095957 VAN)
3. Sullivan, Can Survive, La, 140.
4. Sullivan, Can Survive, La, 140, 142; Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 85
5. Sullivan, Can Survive, La, 141; Siew Kai Lan, oral history interview by Chong Soon Yew, 2 June 1988, transcript and MP3 audio, 29:14, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 000933), 2.
6. Sullivan, Can Survive, La, 141; Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 86; Siew Kai Lan, oral history interview by Chong Soon Yew, 2 June 1988, transcript and MP3 audio, 15:47, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 000933), 1.
7. Sullivan, Can Survive, La, 141; Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 85.
8. Sullivan, Can Survive, La, 141; Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 86; K. Kaye, Nothing Is Junk to a Malayan Junk Man,” Straits Times, 13 February 1951, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Sullivan, Can Survive, La, 140–3; Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 86.
10. Sullivan, Can Survive, La, 141–3; Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 86.
11. Lo-Ang and Chua, Vanishing Trades of Singapore, 85.

The information in this article is valid as of 2016 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for further reading materials on the topic.

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