Learning to Craft Pewter in Setapak

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With the world’s largest pewter tankard, as certified by the Guinness Book of Records.

Life is often unpredictable, often throwing curveballs and surprises at us out of thin air, but amidst the uncertainty, there’s one thing that Malaysians can count on: at some point in their lives, someone will present them with a pewter gift.

It may be in the form of a tankard, a photo frame or a tea sets. It might even be a souvenir plate with a retirement message on it, and you’ll proudly put it in your display cabinet as a talking point for when guests come to the house.

The metal alloy primarily made up of tin — known as pewter — means something to Malaysians, thanks to the popularity of Royal Selangor, a global, household Malaysian company renowned for its fine craftsmanship of pewter products.

Sending someone a Royal Selangor gift conveys thoughtfulness, appreciation and that little expense was spared to procure a gift in the pewter category. Often enough, it’s presented to friends from other countries as a showcase of one of the country’s best and most unique products — an affirmation of the “Boleh” spirit, if you will.

The company set up three visitor centres some years back; in Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Singapore, to introduce visitors to its history, factory, the process of pewter making and products. Even though their gifts are so beloved and distinctly us (Malaysian,) I suspect most locals, myself included, wouldn’t know how to explain the significance of pewter to outsiders, let alone accurately describe what it is.

Since admission to the visitor centres is free, you owe yourself a visit if you live within close proximity to any of their three locations. I recently paid a visit to the one in Setapak, Kuala Lumpur, which is also their headquarters.

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The lobby of the visitor centre is in the ground floor of the building, to the left of the pool that you see in the picture. This is where you can sign up for (again, free) guided tours that are conducted in multiple languages. It’s an earth-toned, solid concrete lobby that resembles an open-air space within a spa resort, creating a pleasant and tranquil atmosphere as you wait for your tour to start.

At the far end is a walkalator leading into the gallery of Royal Selangor’s history and exhibit room of artifacts, on which your tour guide will escort you. In the gallery, he or she might tell your group that the company was founded in 1885 by a tinsmith named Yong Koon; that the family weathered harsh economic times, changing demands and wartime restrictions; and an internal squabble that split them into three companies, with only one (called Selangor Pewter until they switched to their current name in 1992 to reflect an official charter from the sultan of Selangor,) that succeeded in staying relevant by reinventing themselves every decade or so.

The stories are as fascinating as the artifacts in the exhibit room, which include household items, tools and 1800s Malayan money–clunky, cumbersome pewter animals that were phased out and replaced with flat money trees. On these trees, leaves were replaced by coins that were broken off their branches when you had to pay for something. Other rooms around the main exhibit are interactive and educational, intended to share fun facts about pewter with visitors.

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The gallery.

After you’re done exploring the other rooms, there’s a chance to learn a bit more about how pewter products are made, and get a glimpse of the factory. To get to the part of the factory that’s open to public, visitors are led through a winding walkway where a craftsperson sits at one of three different stations, demonstration the process of casting, polishing and hammering handmade patterns onto the very malleable pewter. Take pictures, ask questions and even try your hand at hammering–it’s definitely not as easy as the craftsperson makes it look!

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Left to right: casting, polishing and decorating (in this case, using a hammer.)

The tour ends after a quick walkthrough of the open factory, but you can extend your time there with two ways: a half-hour session at the School of Hard Knocks, learning to shape a pewter bowl using old-fashioned tools for RM60 (you get to keep the bowl of course,) or a one-hour workshop on casting and decorating your own pewter accessory at the Foundry for RM150. I tried out the School of Hard Knocks, which was quite fun and challenging. The instructor was very encouraging, and praised me for making my very own bowl, but that’s too much credit. I wouldn’t have been able to give my bowl that perfect gradual curve without her help.

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Tools in the School of Hard Knocks

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My instructor shaping my bowl for me, as I was beginning to shape mine into a lopsided, contemporary art looking thing.

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I did hammer it to the right depth, so alright! I’m worthy of that certificate.

Overall, the tour itself is excellent as far as free tours go, but might be a bit short especially for those who are visiting from further distances. What I appreciate about touring this factory is that you’re not only learning about Royal Selangor, but also getting a glimpse into Kuala Lumpur’s history from a tin industry perspective, a trade that was important to the city’s initial growth. So while you’re there, don’t just do the tour and get ushered into the shop afterwards, get the most out of your visit and take one of the workshops. It’s novelty fun for an afternoon–after all, how many people can say they crafted their own bowl out of pewter?

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