'The Last Artisan': An expat film-maker's love letter to Haw Par Villa's last pioneer craftsman

Teng Yong Ping
Lifestyle Editor
Craig McTurk (right), a senior film lecturer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, believes the life of Haw Par Villa’s retired craftsman Teo Veoh Seng (left) had to be captured in detail. (Photos: Craig McTurk)

Talk about commitment to a passion: film producer Craig McTurk spent more than two years to make his documentary The Last Artisan, about Haw Par Villa’s last surviving original craftsman, 84-year-old Teo Veoh Seng.

54-year-old McTurk, an American film lecturer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic who has been based in Singapore for 17 years, thought that it was important to document in detail the story of Teo.

Teo retired last year but still returns to Haw Par Villa regularly to pass his skills to two apprentices from China. The veteran artisan’s job for the last 70 years has been to maintain the park’s sculptures by painting and refurbishing them.

The Last Artisan will premiere at the Singapore International Film Festival on 5 December (tickets to the premiere are sold out but as of 16 November, one more screening has been added for 8 December). McTurk is currently exploring distributors for the film.

The 88-minute documentary puts the spotlight on Teo, who narrates his life and experience growing up in Haw Par Villa, and now passing on the baton of preserving the unique park to a younger generation.

Speaking to Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore, McTurk said it was ironic that Teo had to resort to teaching Chinese immigrants his skills after locals proved unwilling to take on the manual labour. At the same time, McTurk sees the situation as a metaphor of Singapore’s rapid development.

Teo Veoh Seng (centre) with his two apprentices in “The Last Artisan”. (Screenshot from “The Last Artisan”: Craig McTurk)

McTurk said he saw news articles in the media about Teo, but felt they were too short to capture such an important moment as Teo was retiring. So he decided to make a documentary about the master craftsman. He raised half of the film’s $150,000 budget through grants from the National Heritage Board and Ngee Ann Polytechnic, as well as a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. The remaining funds were financed by himself.

The Last Artisan is McTurk’s first feature film as a director. He previously worked for TV networks in the US including PBS, Animal Planet and National Geographic, and was a co-producer and cameraman for music documentary Satan and Adam (2018).

McTurk sees Haw Par Villa as a charming oasis compared to “flashier” new attractions such as Gardens by the Bay. The theme park was built in 1937 by the two Burmese brothers who invented the herbal ointment Tiger Balm, Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par.

Haw Par Villa contains over a thousand statues and dioramas depicting Chinese mythology and folklore. Some of them are rather bizarre and grotesque. (Photos: Getty Images)

The two philanthropists built Haw Par Villa as a way of preserving Chinese culture. The park contains over a thousand statues and dioramas depicting Chinese mythology and folklore. Many of these statues are rather bizarre and grotesque – they include gruesome punishments for sinners in the Ten Courts of Hell, as well as a woman breastfeeding her mother-in-law in a show of filial piety.

McTurk feels that as an expatriate who has put down roots in Singapore, he was well-positioned to document this slice of Singaporean heritage.

“A friend of mine told me that a local wouldn’t have made this film because they tend to take such things for granted,” he said. “Being both an outsider and insider, I could offer both perspectives in approaching the film.”

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