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We all have a mental image of the ‘creative type’ – the artist, the designer, the decorator – bohemian, anti-establishment, maverick, unconventional, perhaps even impoverished?  Stanley Ngu does not look like this type.

Pin-striped shirt, smart slacks and studious glasses, he looks the archetypal professional, handsome and well-presented. After all, that’s exactly who he is, a professional who has taken a route from a degree in chemistry, through a stint in oil and gas, past an MBA, into a sojourn in contracting and finally back out into his current role as a successful remisier, employing three others. This is the kind of man you would trust with your money. But two years ago, in a decidedly unexpected twist, Stanley bought an old timber yard. Now he is busy transforming almost every new F&B outlet in town with innovative furniture and fittings alike.

So, just how does a successful remisier, turning 50 in August, come to own a timber yard full of rusty old lumber? Wood. It all comes down to wood. He loves it. Merbau is a favourite, but of course, most of all, Belian. Sarawak is home to many tropical hardwood superheroes but Belian is the man of steel. Found only in Borneo, parts of Indonesia and the Sulu archipelago of the Philippines, it is our ebony – pitch black, impervious to termites, resistant to rot. It is no wonder it is known colloquially as Borneo Ironwood, qualifying for the title on its weight alone. It has anti-bacterial properties (though anyone who has ever suffered a splinter might doubt that) and it even smells good!  To give it its scientific name, Eusideroxylon Zwageri is highly prized by the Dayak who recognize two different types, Belian Teras and Belian Kapuk. Believed to ward off tigers and elephants, traditionally the tiang pemun (central pillar) of every longhouse at the very least would be hewn from Belian, if not the rest of the structure, especially the tanju.

                   

Sarawak is home to many tropical hardwood superheroes but Belian is the man of steel. Found only in Borneo, parts of Indonesia and the Sulu archipelago of the Philippines,
it is our ebony – pitch black, impervious to termites, resistant to rot.

         

In modern times, however, this magical timber and its forest fellows have been the foundation stone of Sarawak’s development and, sadly, the source of many of its troubles. The Fifties saw the rise of the timber tycoons and the felling of our mighty forest has continued right up to the present day. Horrifying statistics abound. Studies show that Malaysia had the world’s highest rate of forest loss in the world between 2000 and 2012, nearly 50 percent higher than the next closest country Paraguay, and the statistics are even bleaker on this side of the South China Seas. Here, satellite images reveal that only 5 per cent of Sarawak’s rainforest remains untouched by logging or plantations, thanks to a total deforestation rate 3.5 times as high as the rest of Asia put together. According to a 2012 article in the renowned Economist magazine: ‘Sarawak has only 0.5% of the world’s tropical forest but accounted for 25% of tropical-log exports in 2010.’  With its slow growth rate (it takes 120 years to reach 30cm diameter), it is little wonder then that Belian is on the list of threatened species and is essentially extinct in most of Sarawak.

But ironically, its very properties that make it so vulnerable to death at the hands of the timber industry are also responsible for its rebirth here in Sarawak. After all, Belian lasts a really, really, really long time.  Japanese researchers have dated some stumps at well over 1,000 years old. Even better, it only improves with age, darkening from a newly cut light brown to a distinctive charcoal. Exposed to the elements, deep ruts, channels and grooves appear creating a unique texture.  Leave it in a river for 100 years and the effect is even more fascinating.  This ironwood is extremely dense and so doesn’t float in water, lying on the bottom of our famous rivers for decades. With the passage of water and time, the surface becomes a black moonscape of ridges and hollows, once home to eddies and river snails. Perfect for a statement piece in the homes of yuppies and urban rats.

            

So it is that old Belian lends itself so well to recycling and Stanley is a pioneer among a growing number of enthusiasts who are putting it to uses new. It all started for him way back in 1995 when he and his brother went to work for their uncle in furniture and renovations.  The job itself was short-lived, ending abruptly at the crash of 1997, but the passion of a lifetime was born. He started doing renovations on his own properties, with the wood always the star. It clads surfaces; it shutters windows; it covers floors; it creates furnishings.

The Charcoal. If you’ve seen it, you’ll remember it. In a cut-through between Batu Lintang and Jalan Simpang Tiga, it juts out, monolithic, from the end of a row of identikit terrace houses. Armoured in black belian, this once ordinary property is now a castle which poses questions on form, function, purpose, aesthetics. In a town that seems to have a decided preference for chrome and concrete, this is either the Anti-Christ or a revelation, depending on your point of view. His neighbour describes him as daring: what if he couldn’t sell it? But, as Stanley puts it: “I only have to find one buyer”. In all, the house is such a Stanley statement – deeply organic and yet wholly constructed simultaneously. He has no plans, just adds and shapes as he goes along. The belian shutters in the Charcoal took him 9 months to get right. Sometimes he can spend up to an hour in silent contemplation of the space. With the furniture, he comes up with a concept and his workers have to make up the method. Everything is in some respects an experiment, whether in furniture or in fittings, that leads him closer to his final goal.

  

In the meantime, his wood hobby has come good. And yes, despite a thriving business, Stanley still considers it a hobby with no plans yet to give up his day job, juggling the furniture, renovations and investments with aplomb. In fact, the furniture, which is currently selling so well, is almost a distraction, at best a sideline. Actually, Stanley has a mission, deep-seated and fascinatingly specific. He even has a mission statement: ‘To build 100 dream houses to creatively and innovatively enrich the built environment of Kuching.’

The Charcoal is just the start. It couldn’t get more constructed than that, and yet the journey in between is entirely organic – even the timber yard. He used to buy his wood there and when the previous owner retired, he and his brother decided to buy it. In fact, the owner wanted them to have it, rejecting a higher offer, infected by Stanley’s passion. Now he is stockpiling old timbers and young manpower for his final mission.  When he is done, he plans to retire and enjoy life. But, it seems like he might be already, more than most of us at least.

                 The Charcoal; the first among many

In all his renovations, the wood is always the star

So, is Stanley the ‘creative type’? ‘Creative’ certainly, but clearly not a ‘type’. Bohemian, certainly not; establishment, clearly; maverick, definitely; impoverished, definitely not. This is what makes him unconventional. He approaches a creative endeavour with the laser sight of a scientist and somehow makes it work – a man on a mission.  He calls his business ‘Solo’, a testimony to the uniqueness of the wood, but it is also a testimony to his own. Each piece of furniture is branded with that word, so that one day his children will be able to recognize a piece and know that it was built by their father. After all, thanks to him, the wood will outlive us all.

Karen had long been fascinated by the Charcoal, so on meeting the owner/designer, she leapt at the chance of making friends. A shared passion for belian is a powerful thing!

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