The Clockmaker’s Son

A passion for antique mechanical gadgets drives Shawn Lim to keep his family business of restoring antique timepieces going in this digital age.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Shawn Lim’s favourite retreat is his bedroom. “It is the only place where I don’t see clocks,” quips the bespectacled 27-year-old. As the third-generation scion of the Lim family to run Cheong Ann Watch Maker, much of his waking hours are spent tinkering with the intricate mechanical parts of antique clocks to ensure they continue keeping accurate time for years to come.

Since he joined the 73-year-old business in 2015, he has spent countless late nights and weekends at Cheong Ann’s quaint shophouse in Lim Tua Tow Road that's packed to the rafters with timekeepers of all shapes and sizes. And, in spite of a wry comment about finding respite from horology, he is clearly in his element in this space where he is surrounded by the melodic tick-tock of what seems like a thousand clocks.

Despite the company’s watchmaker moniker coined by his grandfather, the business no longer deals in wristwatches. Instead, it focuses mainly on the repair and restoration of clocks.

“Clockmaking is a niche market. If you think about it, unlike watch collections that can be infinite, an individual would typically have no more than two to three clocks in a home so he would have to curate them very carefully,” says Lim.

One of his most significant commissions has been the restoration of Raffles Singapore’s grandfather clock, the oldest piece of furniture in the hotel. His father David first repaired it in the ‘90s. During the hotel’s recent facelift, Lim and his dad were called to work on the clock again. “Listen for the chime. This is a tubular clock so its chimes come from brass tubes instead of bells, rods or gongs. So beautiful.”

His love for old things was cultivated from childhood. A sentimental soul, he still has the first battery-operated Seiko watch his grandfather gifted him when he was in preschool. He also has fond memories of carefree schooldays spent wandering about the Cheong Ann shophouse with his older sister and brother. “We grew up in the shop. To stop us from running around, our parents would give us clocks to dismantle.”

In his early 20s, he realised that academia was not for him and decided to learn the trade from his father. Today, the younger Lim is mostly in charge of the show. His father still spends time in the shop, supervising when needed and chipping in on certain restoration jobs.

The business may be rooted in objects from the past, but this millennial has had no qualms about making changes to appeal to a modern clientele. He launched Cheong Ann’s Instagram and Facebook pages and has begun to invest in social media advertising to reach out to a wider pool of clients. There are also plans to expand into e-commerce.

On the rare occasion that he can get away from work, which typically happens right after the Chinese New Year, Lim would travel. He has a soft spot for Japan and identifies strongly with its culture of care and preservation. “I admire how the Japanese take good care of their possessions so that they last a long time.” The clockmaker’s son muses: “Mechanical items like clocks have survived for so long that they have become a part of history. I am proud to be a trusted custodian of family heirlooms with so much sentimental value.”