Hipster cafes and digital start-ups may be all the rage, but these three pioneers tell LEE XIN HUI why they’re taking the vintage path to work fulfilment.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Hipster cafes and digital start-ups may be all the rage, but these three pioneers tell LEE XIN HUI why they’re taking the vintage path to work fulfilment.

STELLA TAN, 24, clay artist at Thow Kwang Pottery (www.thowkwang.com.sg)

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“I couldn’t bear to see this trade of wood-fired pottery dying.”

Hanging around her neck is an intricate handmade necklace with multicoloured and textured stones. I comment that it’s pretty, and Stella declares proudly: “You won’t find an identical piece.”

That’s the beauty of items made through dragon kiln wood firing, an arduous process involving eight to 10 people and spanning a few days from preheating to the firing of the kiln. The end result? Unique works of art that are unlike anything fired by electric kilns, and the reason why Stella is so passionate about the craft. Growing up in a kampung near Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle, which houses a brickbuilt dragon kiln, she is intimately associated with the trade.

Built by her grandfather in 1965, Thow Kwang Pottery Jungle, off Jalan Bahar, is now managed by some of her uncles and aunts. Her fondest childhood memories are of using clay utensils to play masak masak (a Malay term for makebelieve cooking) with her brother. Her parents even had an ingenious way of using pottery to prevent the kids from running about. “They would ‘trap’ us in this huge ceramic pot so we couldn’t escape!” she shares with a chuckle.

When the school holidays were on, Stella helped out with the family business, but it wasn’t until 2013, when she was 22, that she decided to join full-time. “My relatives were getting older, and I couldn’t bear to see this trade of wood- fired pottery dying,” says the 24-year-old, who conducts workshops, handles the company’s social media and business development and crafts pottery and jewellery too.

To reach out to a younger crowd, Stella started showcasing her work – necklaces and kitchenware such as plates which cost $38 to $70 a piece – at pop-up markets organised by the likes of Naiise and Kranji Farmers’ Market.

Her efforts have paid off . Stella’s workshops on weekends and in school-holiday time draw up to 40 people a session – couples, families, visiting artists and tourists. Her kitchenware can be found at restaurants like The Tuckshop and Joo Bar, and she recently scored a deal with new hotel The South Beach to display her crafts there. She also shared her story through The Best of You, a social movement that invites people to show appreciation for others.

Ironically, Stella quit her former job as a pastry chef because of the long hours. These days, she works six days a week, from 8am till late into the night. But she has no complaints. “I love what I do. Besides, it’s my family’s business, and if I don’t give it my all, who will?”

CHARLENE LOW, 35, co-owner of Yixing Xuan Teahouse (www.yixingxuan-teahouse.com)

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“Tea should be enjoyed in a way that comforts you, and with great conversation.”

Charlene’s relationship with Chinese tea goes way back. She was only nine years old in 1989 when her dad resigned from his banking job to start Yixing Xuan Teahouse in Tanjong Pagar Road. During the school holidays, she and her two younger siblings honed their tearecognition skills by organising blind tea tastings. “We had a lot of fun, and I vividly remember my younger sister standing on a stool to wash cups in the sink because she was so tiny!” she shares.

In 2010, Charlene, too, gave up her banking career of nine years to follow in her father’s footsteps. “I’ve always loved tea. It’s familiar and comforting. Besides, my father wasn’t getting younger, so I didn’t hesitate when he asked me to join him,” says Charlene, who handles the company’s business development.

She also conducts tea workshops, from $25. During a 45-minute session, she discusses tea varieties in the market and brewing methods, as well as the history and benefits of the beverage.

“I began holding the workshops two years after starting work here. To be able to teach others, I did a lot of research, attended public-speaking classes and had to practise a lot,” says Charlene, who’s conducted 138 workshops to date.

It used to be mainly elderly people who attended her courses, but these days, participants are in their 20s and 30s, a mix of locals, expats and tourists. She says: “It’s a pity that foreigners appear to embrace the learning more, while many locals feel tea-drinking is quite an ‘uncle’ activity and opt for wine or coffee.”

On the bright side, she sees an opportunity because young people tend to be more health-conscious. “Women are drawn to floral teas like yin zhen (white tea) because it’s good for skin, and pu-er for its slimming benefits,” she shares. Besides collaborating with travel agencies, beauty brands and feng shui masters to hold workshops, she conducts talks at schools. “Students are open books, and get excited when there’s a hands-on element,” says Charlene, whose three-year-old son is a tea lover too.

To make her business more accessible, she started selling tea leaves and brewing equipment online, and set up a Facebook page. These efforts have improved business by 20 per cent.

Her biggest job satisfaction? When customers reveal they’ve given up teabags in favour of loose leaves after attending one of her workshops.

And despite her passion, she denies being a tea snob. “When friends invite me over, they apologise for not having good tea. But I’m okay with it, really!”

REBECCA CHAN, 35, owner of All Ten Tic Jamu Massage (www.alltentic.com)

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“Jamu massage is now considered essential.”

After giving birth to her eldest daughter in 2005, Rebecca couldn’t wait to get back into shape. On a friend’s recommendation, she booked a home session of postnatal jamu massage (a traditional Indonesian massage using various plants and herbs), even though she knew little about it.

Several 90-minute sessions later, her blood clots had cleared up, her tummy felt tighter, and she was more energetic overall. She tried the massage again after her second pregnancy in 2008 and experienced equally satisfying results. Convinced of its benefits, she quit her job of seven years as a fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) salesperson and spent $20,000 of her savings to set up All Ten Tic Jamu Massage. Her aim was to provide home-based postnatal massages to mums in Singapore.

Even though her husband, Jason, was supportive of her decision, Rebecca’s mother was against her choice to give up a stable job for something so “traditional”. “But I was certain that new mums would benefit from the treatment, just like I had – if only they knew about it,” she says.

With that vision, the 35-year-old set out to gain an in-depth understanding of the treatment. Over two years, she attended four courses conducted by postnatal masseuses so she could incorporate different techniques into All Ten Tic’s massages. She also attained a certificate in manual lymphatic drainage. But despite constant advertising via fliers and forums, business was dismal in the first year, with fewer than 10 customers a month.

“Outside of the Malay community, few mothers were familiar with what the massage actually does,” she says. “Customers were also sceptical when they discovered that the business was headed by a young Chinese woman, as it’s a traditional Indonesian massage.”

Undeterred, Rebecca introduced lactation massage and hot stone therapy, which work in tandem to resolve engorgement and blocked milk ducts due to breastfeeding. Instead of the cotton cloth typically used during binding (the last step done in jamu massage to help reduce tummy size), she uses batik, which is more breathable. She also tweaked the herbal massage oil formula to make it less pungent.

Business started to boom in 2010, thanks to recommendations by loyal customers. In 2013, her husband left his engineering job to expand the business, which now offers a range of natural products for new mums, like a lemongrass confinement shower gel and slimming body cream.

The company has seen a 50 per cent increase in revenue since it started. It now has 12 employees (10 are full-time therapists) and a monthly customer base of 60 to 80 mums. Rebecca has even received business enquiries from Australia, Dubai, Hong Kong and China. To expand the business to China and other parts of the world, she is working with Spring Singapore, an agency under the Ministry of Trade and Industry which aims to help Singapore enterprises grow. Amid her hectic schedule, she gave birth to her third child in March 2015.

So how have perceptions about jamu massage changed? “In the past, women would think of it as a good-to-have. Now, they consider it essential postnatal care,” she says. “Many husbands are even booking sessions for their wives!”