Cover Selangor Pewter workshop in Pudu

Royal Selangor, Malaysia’s largest pewter manufacturer and retailer, has a 137-year-old story—starting with a young man who sailed for Kuala Lumpur at the age of 14

March 2022 was the dawn of a new age for Royal Selangor, as Malaysia’s biggest, most long-standing pewter craft company joined the metaverse.

Collaborating with 8SIAN, the latter a well-known women-led NFT project that traded over 4,600 ETH on OpenSea (approximately US$11.6 million), a beautiful jade and pewter figurine of the 8SIAN Jade Lady Goddess NFT was produced. An amalgamation of both digital and physical, the message behind the 8SIAN Jade Lady is a sentiment shared between the two brands: the celebration of Asian heritage and the immortalisation of its culture.

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“Exploring the metaverse was a novel experience and an opportunity to learn about NFTs. We participated in Decentraland’s first-ever virtual fashion week,” says Yong Yoon Li, the fourth-generation managing director of Royal Selangor.

“While NFTs are a great way for creators to protect their intellectual property and showcase their creativity, it was also a means for us to identify talent. There’s so much potential within the space, and the community’s energetic enthusiasm encourages us to explore and expand our boundaries.”

Having just reached its 137th year, innovation is one of the company’s key pillars, seeing as Royal Selangor had come a long way since the late 19th century.

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In 1885, 14-year-old Yong Koon set sail for Kuala Lumpur after completing his three-year apprenticeship as a pewter smith in Shantou, China. While tin mining was a prevalent trade in Malaya, Yong Koon joined his brothers who were tinsmiths, and decided to do something with metal instead of mining.

A prominent pewter smith and a prolific businessman at a young age, Yong Koon created his hallmark, Yu He Zu Xi, which directly translates to ‘Jade Peace, Pure Tin’.

The former phrase was the name of the shop, which he opened at No 23 Cross Street (now Jalan Tun Tan Siew Sin). From traditional Chinese altar paraphernalia like pewter incense burners and joss stick holders to Western-European style home decor as well as household items like vases, figurines, cocktail shakers, trinket boxes and even casserole stands during the British rule, Yu He Zu Xi was one of the first pewter smithies in Kuala Lumpur.

According to Yoon Li, one can find his great-grandfather’s works in some of the temples within Kuala Lumpur, namely the Sin Sze Si Ya temple in Petaling Street.

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To date, Royal Selangor maintains that very quality of their pewter—consisting of 92 to 97 per cent tin and minimal amounts of copper as well as antimony to strengthen the alloy.

During the tumultuous time of the 1930s, however, when the Great Depression was at its height and World War II loomed over the horizon, Yong Koon and his family moved to No 219 Pudu Road, where they opened their own shophouse and launched Malayan Pewter Works. It was at this time when his four sons, Peng Pow, Peng Kai, Peng Seong and Peng Sin, struck out on their own, forming four other pewter companies: Tiger Pewter, Malayan Pewter, Selangor Pewter and Lion Pewter.

In the end, only Selangor Pewter, run by Peng Kai, Yong Koon’s third son, survived. During the Japanese Occupation, they made flasks, sake sets and cigarette cases for the servicemen.

Peng Kai married Guay Soh Eng in 1938. The couple then rented half a shop in Batu Road after WWII ended, which is known today as Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman. While his wife ran the shop and managed the sales, Peng Kai would oversee the production of pewter items at the factory in Pudu. On Royal Selangor’s website, Peng Kai is cited describing his wife as his ‘right arm’.

As the business grew in the 1960s and the company exported their products globally, Peng Kai moved the factory to Setapak. By then, they were also considered one of the first companies in Malaysia to hire women in the workforce. From Hong Kong, Germany, Denmark, Japan, Australia and the UK, the company participated in international gift and tableware fairs. In the 1970s, Royal Selangor established a jewellery design venture called Selberan, a Malaysian fine jewellery brand, and acquired Comyns in 1993, which specialises in fine silverware.

It’s evident that with each generation and its challenges, Royal Selangor had withstood them all. For Yoon Li, despite the onset of the digital age and the Covid-19 pandemic, he finds that the key to moving forward is collaborating with the up-and-coming generation.

“It’s because of their exposure to projects like our collaboration with 8SIAN that many young people are now interested in our apprenticeship programme and industrial training. The demand for physical pieces is still present as our customers like having a limited art piece to their collection. For some folks, it reminds them of the digital asset they own.

“Even our own craftspeople are excited to work on these physical pieces, and in a way, [those pieces] help promote the NFT space—which in turn helps us be more relevant with our younger audience. The more they are exposed to what we do, the closer it brings them to our craft. The world of arts and culture has always been our epicentre of inspiration, and now that the digital space is tied to it as well, we want to do everything we can to preserve and promote that world through our design and craftsmanship.”

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