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Hot Seat: Singapore's iconic rattan chair

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If you grew up in the 1960s or 1970s, you probably would have taken a childhood photo on one of these chairs. Fondly called the shell chair, it was a familiar sight in many homes and photography studios. Rattan was widely used in furniture-making in the tropics because it is lightweight, long-lasting, flexible and could be worked into many styles. Taking inspiration from clamshells, craftsmen started making these seats in Singapore in the 1950s, selling them to both locals and expatriates. 

“Both young and old enjoyed lounging on it because it’s so cooling,” says 66-year-old rattan maker Chen Foon Kee. They were individually made by hand - by winding and weaving rattan reeds in concentric circles, starting from the centre, “much like spinning a spider’s web”. Foon Kee, who took over his father’s rattan shop in 1970, recalls how he could deftly make six of these seats a day to meet demand. The chair cost just $7 in those days, which probably explains why it was so commonplace. The humble seat serves as an enduring reminder of our childhood days. For some, it has lasted for years with generations growing up on it, as it made its way from five-foot ways to HDB flats.

Chun Mee Lee Rattan Furniture
Block 122 Bukit Merah Lane 1, #01-68, tel: 6278-2388

This was part of our SG50 Hot Seat series, first published in our August 2015 issue. You can download it here.

This story was written by Yuen Yee Foong. 

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