From Goldsmiths to Gold Merchants
More than a century ago, rich nyonyas on Heeren Street would have jewellers come to their house and craft exquisite pieces of jewellery while they watched. William Tien’s father was one of these craftsmen, and William was fortunate to have his father pass his hard-won knowledge down to him. In the 60s William himself took up an apprenticeship in Singapore, at a wage of barely 20 [Malaysian] dollars a month. In his shop in Bunga Raya in the 70s, Yap Eng Kee trained 18 apprentices, some of whom are now themselves “tauke” of big enterprises throughout Malaysia.
In Melaka the number of goldsmith shops grew, with clusters on Bunga Raya, Kee Ann Road and Kampung Jawa. This led to more choice and therefore more competition, as customers were able to compare and bargain. With the advent of technology, unique hand-crafted pieces began to be replaced by factory-made jewellery, which were cheaper and faster to make, but not of course not unique. And as stocks from factories became the norm, the system of apprenticeships died out, as observed by Yap Eng Kee in his informative interview. Because instead of craftsmen, what a Kedai Emas needed on its shop floor was salesmen.
As designs and factory-made stock grow increasingly similar to one another, it’s relationships with customers that make a difference. Sharon Lee recounts how her mother’s bond with her customers saw grandparents bring their children and then grandchildren to their shop. One generation later, Sharon too finds high job satisfaction in their “delight”, recounting how a customer burst into joyous song upon buying his wife a bracelet.
And it’s also these long relationships which determine where people bring their rare jewellery to sell. Magdalene Chee and Kellan Lai show how these transactions are important: because now Peranakan jewellery is no longer being produced, customers from Singapore and Penang snap up these irreplaceable pieces. The craftsmanship and expertise is no more, with the exception of several old craftsmen, described by Andy Yoong. At the same time, standards were raised. Yap Eng Kee recounted how in his time as President of the Malacca Goldsmith Merchants Association, gold quality became standardised and well-regulated. So reliable are industry standards now, Fabian Fong Mun Kwai assures us, that Malaysia is one of the safer countries worldwide in which to buy gold.
Thomas Lai explained the acid test, and also the different types of gold. We learned that predominantly, sales are of bracelets, rings, earrings in 916 gold. Gold bars, in purer and more expensive 999 gold, require a special licence and are not commonly sold. Among younger customers there is a trend for “white gold”, what was known before as “emas pound”, because of fears for security and as it’s less costly. Almost all the gold merchants said Malay customers are their biggest market for gold, by far. Lim Hoo Chin said that Indians drive a hard bargain, and so she no longer stocks thali and other such jewellery, but Yap Eng Kee said Indians were his valued customers precisely because they were discerning and loyal, and spent a lot.
Sadly, these interviews suggest that “Kedai Emas” in Melaka are on the decline. Escalating prices of gold and certainly this year’s circumstances have exacerbated this. Khoo Chua Thong was eloquent on the desperate times, in which one waits endlessly for customers to appear, while playing tikam-tikam from day to day. What next, he asks? Should Melaka’s gold merchants become property speculators?