I was strolling through George Town in Penang and seeking refuge from the heat, when I happened upon the Chop Kongsi atelier workshop. This darling little store full of quirks and delights is run by May Lyn Foo. The hour I spent browsing the trifles and trinkets and casually chatting with May Lyn were one of the highlights of visit to Penang.
The first thing you notice when you step inside Chop Kongsi are the sheer assortment of dolls. The shelves, tables and cabinets are stacked with dolls of all sorts, from plastic figurines of the 40s and 50s, to handmade Geisha dolls, African beaded models, traditional southeast Asian puppets and rag dolls sewn from scraps of fabric and other odd bobs. May Lyn Foo has an uncanny fascination with babies and dolls. She explained it was an irrational fascination that started more than 20 years ago when she was living in Provence, France. She would go to her local cafe to be inspired and soak up the culture, and from time to time she would find herself sketching images of babies. She handed me a framed watercolour from the time titled Suicide Babies. Since then, she has collected dolls from all around the world although she particularly loves the plastic models of the 1940s.
May Lyn is first and foremost a performer and then artist. When her body was no longer able to keep up with the demands of the theatre she poured her creative energies into handcrafts and visual arts and for the past decade has created pictures, jewellery, ornaments and of course, dolls. Her mother who is over 80 years old also sews and provides handmade pin cushions and bracelets for the store.
The pin cushions also caught the eye of a NASA executive, who wanted to give his business partners a more meaningful Christmas gift one year. He commissioned several handmade pin cushions to be gifted with the following heartfelt message:
In a tiny terrace-house somewhere in Perak, Malaysia, lives a beautiful 83yr old lady, alone. She made these pin cushions leisurely, as time hurtles forward. She says it is good for her brain <<but because of my astigmatism, I might miss a stitch or two!>>, she laughs.
These soft sculptures are not mere pin cushions but also serve as slow-crafted objects made by someone who has lived through historical turns. They remind us of those moments of true human rhythms, and take us back to a time when c-a-l-m was the measure of the day.
Place this on your office desk, next to the computer. Look at it once in a while, place your hand on the cushion and remember who we are.
May Lyn spent the majority of her career in France and the United Kingdom before returning to her native country of Malaysia where she setup the Chop Kongsi. She admitted her decision was a tough one and she still wonders whether it was the right one. Many of her neighbours don’t get her art and think of all her dolls and handcrafts as mere voodoo. She also has difficulty earning enough money to make ends meet and is horrified at the lack of respect shown by some tourists, who use the decorative mirrors to clean their teeth and fix their makeup, rather than appreciate the art. Nonetheless, she refuses to sell out by trading cheap Thai and Chinese mass produced trinkets. Everything in her store is collected and handmade by herself and her mother.
May Lyn is a hospitable and passionate women, who has had many rich experiences and I enjoyed listening to her story. The artworks at her store also have a nostalgic and storytelling quality to them, much like May Lyn’s personality, and which remind me of a time bygone where handcrafts and manmade artefacts were valued.
The Chop Kongsi is a little atelier workshop in the heart of George Town that sells jewellery made by hand, curiosities, dolls, trinkets, creatures, objectives of desire and old and new artworks… everything returning to all things s-l-o-w & c-a-l-m.
82c Lebuh Penang
George Town 10200