The Blacksmiths of Sri Gading

There is a smithy in Sri Gading where my grandparents live. Well at least one of them still does, the other lives on in our hearts 🙂

So I’ve always wanted to catch the Sri Gading blacksmiths in action. You mean I’ve never seen men take on tough objects and bend them to their wills? Ha ha ha. No.

But am I excited about blacksmithing? Not quite. My knowledge on this is next to zero, any information obtained is through painful (but admittedly basic and superficial) Internet research.

My interest lies in the men (and some women) who keep at this dying trade, the same folks who labour in the background and contributed to nation building by supplying farm and estate workers with tools to carry out their work.

You see, during my great-grandparents’ time, jungles were cleared to make way for rubber estates, then later African oil palm trees to be owned by Genting Plantations. Back then, every other anak Sri Gading was either a rubber tapper, or farmer, or someone who needs to clear out jungles at some point in their lives, my late grandfather included.

Guess who kept their parang and various tools sharp and shiny?

Blacksmith Sri Gading - shop
Blink and you’ll miss the smithy

The plantation business has since dwindled and people moved out to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Today, along the rows of old zinc-roofed shops, those that remain open supply villagers with bare necessities, sufficient for day-to-day activities.

One of them is the Lais, a Hakka family of blacksmiths that started their business in the 1950s. As a kid, I’d never noticed their shop for the candy store next door was more appealing.

Blacksmith Sri Gading - Lai brothers at work
The business name is Hoe Lee. The brothers are neither Hoe nor Lee

This past Chinese New Year, I found myself spending more time in Sri Gading than usual. So I mustered the courage to go say hi to the blacksmiths, and to get their permission to take photos. Why do I make it sound like a daunting task? Well, I dislike having MY photo taken, so I can’t imagine too many people would be comfortable with it, more so if it’s a stranger asking.

… Then again, I’m no stranger! Or at least my Mum isn’t. Like any opportunistic child, I took advantage of my Mum’s history in Sri Gading to approach the Lais.

“Hi, I’m the youngest daughter of [my mother’s name] who lived at the back of the road, do you know her?”

One of the blacksmiths replied, “Of course we know her, we grew up together HAHAHHAHAHAHAAHAHAHHAA!”

And thus, the ice was broken.

The other blacksmith chipped in, “We know who you are too! But.. err, you look different now….”

Can you blame them though? The last time they saw me, I looked like this:

Young child in the 80s
Sup?

At the peak of the good ol’ times, there were as many as four smithies in Batu Pahat, kept busy with endless demands for working tools. Today, just the Lai brothers remain, taking in orders for tools that require constant repairing. The only relative carrying on the family trade is a younger cousin, blacksmithing some 65 kilometres away in Pontian.

Blacksmith Sri Gading - goods
Tools for sale. They make working tools, they are not artisan sculptors

The elder Lai brother, A-Shan was welcoming. A 70+ years old jolly man, he laughed plenty, was curious as to why I’d want to take photos, then laughed some more and told me that SO MANY PEOPLE WANT TO TAKE THEIR PHOTOS, SO MANY!

His wife promptly brought out all the newspaper coverage they received from Berita Harian and some Chinese dailies. There were also framed photos sent by a photographer who won a contest using the same shots.

Blacksmith Sri Gading - starting fire
You pull this thing and the fire gets started. Sounds fun, but it is real hard work!

Blacksmith Sri Gading - coal in the forge

Blacksmith Sri Gading - material

Blacksmith Sri Gading - tools
A blacksmith’s tongs

“They asked for my permission to take photos. I told them, take lah, take lah! I’m just doing my usual job anyway! And then they took from SO MANY ANGLES.”

“They climb on the chair. Then they WENT DOWN and CRAWLED on the FLOOR! Imagine that!” he recalled in disbelief.

Blacksmith Sri Gading - fire in forge
A-Shan laughed every time he told his stories

Blacksmith Sri Gading - Mr Lai pointing at the fire in forge

His younger brother, A-Xiang who was in his mid to late 60s was quieter. He spoke a little with my Mum, who was his classmate in primary school.

Blacksmith Sri Gading - making the fire
Blazing fire in the forge, softening the iron tools to be repaired

Blacksmith Sri Gading - forging on the anvil
Years of experience in A-Shan’s eyes

At first glance, it looked fool-proof – two men using fire to soften metal, then shaping it by hammering the s- out of it on the anvil, then cutting the end bits as finishing. What could be so difficult about it?

Turns out, metal shaping requires real sifu skills. If you shape a metal that is too hot, you will instantly spoil it. But if the metal is not hot enough, it will not be shaped properly and will even break.

How long do these repaired tools last? “THREE MONTHS!” A-Shan gleefully replied, because he was adorable like that, “THEN IT GETS BLUNT FROM ALL THE WORK THEY DO. THEN THEY HAVE TO COME BACK AGAIN!!”

Blacksmith Sri Gading - brothers

I watched as the brothers worked, marveled at how well they moved in and out of each other’s way to get the job done. It was almost machine-like, the flow graceful and effortless as they danced to each other’s rhythm without slowing down their pace.

Blacksmith Sri Gading - pounding iron on anvil
Old school blacksmithing is team work

Blacksmith Sri Gading - light moment
That was my Mum making a joke

Blacksmith Sri Gading - own made cutter
Cutting the metal. They made this cutter themselves, one of its kind

Blacksmith Sri Gading - light moment 02

That was a fun hour with the Lai brothers. They cheerfully told us that once they are gone (i.e. depart from this world), there would be no one left to continue the trade in Batu Pahat. Well well! No one like the two of them, that’s for sure.

Go make a trip to see them and say hi to them in Sri Gading. Take lots of photos, they’d love it!

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