TwentyFifteen 17/20: DEFU by Sam Chin & Samuel He


Industrial steamers and ovens are working overtime in cramped kitchens, producing an assortment of paus and Teochew kuehs. Just across the street, a shop owner is selling joss paper to the bereaved. Less than a five-minute walk away, retired Comfort taxis are being scrapped for metal.

This is the organised chaos of Defu Industrial estate, a gathering of more than 1,000 factories in an area larger than 240 football fields.

The seeds for this photographic project were planted a year ago, when we visited a carpenter at Defu Lane to fabricate a prop for a shoot. The repeated patterns of stacked-up air-conditioning compressors, office chairs and used vehicles caught our eye. Our continued research revealed that this world of industrial companies co-existed with a world of food manufacturing, in a wonderful rojak manner.

The pronunciation of Defu sounds like the Mandarin phrase for ‘to gain prosperity’. This certainly rings true for the many manual labourers who work in the area.

For Mr Neo Lye Kuan, a jovial 60-year old, the 20 years he has spent roasting coffee in a sweltering hot factory space meant that he could afford to send two of his children to university.

It’s trendy now to celebrate Tiong Bahru’s village of artisans who make gourmet coffee and sew leather saddles for bicycles. But lost to our common consciousness are these original artisans, many of whom continue to ply a trade in sunset industries.

The Woo family’s Kwong Hoh Hing Sauce Factory is one such example. In an open yard, vats of soy beans are left to ferment for more than a year to produce soy sauce – a method hailing from the family’s lineage in southern China.

The soy sauce factory and other neighbouring businesses were relocated to the estate when it was built in the 1970s.

Change is long overdue for the well-worn estate, with its dusty roads and often illegally-parked vehicles. In order to contain pollution and to optimise land use, the government has launched a 20-year plan to revitalise the area.

Artist impressions of the new Defu Industrial Park show tree-lined parks and sleek glass façades. Modern industrial complexes will replace the existing factories. Amenities like childcare centres and medical clinics have also been planned for.

With the changes, the factory floor space in the estate will increase by about five times.

Some of the present chaos will no doubt be organised into neatly stacked industrial buildings. With that, much of its photographic charm too might be lost.

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