Photo & People

Handmade Popiah Skins: Two families. Two countries. One shared heritage.

It’s 8am on a Monday at Uncle Lim’s Traditional Handmade Poh Piah next to Chowrasta Bazaar in Penang. Normally, they would have started producing their famous popiah skins at 7, and be done by 9.

But today isn’t a normal Monday. A special guest is flying in from Singapore, invited by Canon. There is a subtle sense of anticipation in the air; a feeling that today, there’s going to be a bit of an occasion.

Gary Lim, one of the Lim family’s 4th generation masters, tells us he’s starting an hour late today so that when his guest arrives at around 10am, he can still catch a demonstration of the Lim family’s popiah skin-making technique before they wrap up for the day.

EOS M6, EF-M28mm f/3.5 MACRO STM lens, f/3.5, 28mm, 1/160 sec, ISO160

This old sign at the front of the shop is the first thing that caught our eyes. We thought it appropriate to give it a moment in the spotlight as it beckons us towards master popiah skin maker in the background.

Gary, who normally goes off to his full-time job once he’s done making the skins, has taken half a day off. Rebecca, one of his sisters, is taking time out from running her own business for this social call. 

Their father, the famous Uncle Lim, though physically indisposed since a motorcycle accident and several falls, keeps his still-sharp eyes on the front of the store. Though whether he is looking out for signs of his guest’s arrival or just making sure his business is running smoothly, we couldn’t be sure.

The guest in question is Michael Ker, a 4th generation master of handmade popiah skins from the Ker family in Singapore. This is a big day for him as well – he was up since 4 in the morning to make fresh popiah skins as a gift for the Lims. The night before, his father had given him stern instructions to be respectful and make sure to impress Uncle Lim with his knowledge of their family craft. Talk about pressure.

EOS M6, EF-M28mm f/3.5 MACRO STM lens, f/5.6, 28mm, 1/160 sec, ISO100

A full-on shot of the shopfront is a trending composition – taken in black-and-white to reflect its vintage feel. As you can see, the macro lens is versatile enough to also be used for regular street photography.

As we waited for Michael’s arrival, we watch Gary at work. He continuously rolls a very loose, gooey ball of dough in one hand, holding a scraper in the other. He smears the dough on the surface of a hot wok, leaving a paper-thin layer of popiah skin. Then with a flick of his wrist, he pulls the dough ball yoyo-like back into his hand. The skin heats for barely five seconds before his assistant scrapes and peels it off. By then Gary had already smeared on more skins. He works with two woks at once, occasionally employing the scraper to peel a skin himself if his assistant is having trouble keeping up; or to smear on tiny bits of dough to fix tears in the skins. 

EOS M6, EF-M15-45mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM lens, f/8, 15mm, 1/160 sec, ISO1000

Gary Lim completely engrossed in his work, allowing us to capture his intense focus and attention. The dough ball in his right hand is a blur as he has to continuously keep it rolling.

He works with machine-like speed: in the time it took you to read the previous paragraph, he would have finished at least 25 skins. It’s a mesmerising ballet of finger dexterity, forearm strength, and a flawless precision that comes from years of constant practice.

Rebecca soon arrives, followed by Michael with his aunt, Vicky Ker, in tow. Though meeting for the first time, the Lims and Kers exchange a flurry of greetings like long-lost relations. It’s like one of those feel-good movies suddenly came to life. Even Uncle Lim’s normally stern face lights up in a broad grin. 

As they sit down to chat, an uncanny number of similarities between the two families are revealed.

EOS M6, EF-M28mm f/3.5 MACRO IS STM lens, f/3.5, 28mm, 1/50 sec, ISO1600

We took many shots to capture this candid moment of Uncle Lim and Michael Ker deep in conversation. It was rare indeed to see the normally reserved Uncle Lim speaking this passionately.

The first-generation masters of both families learned their craft in Anxi county, within Fujian province in southeastern China. For all we know, they had the same teacher.

This knowledge was passed on to the second generation, who migrated to the Straits Settlements in Southeast Asia. In Penang, the skill was handed down from Uncle Lim’s father to his elder brother, then to Uncle Lim and their children. In Singapore, it was also kept in the family – although the Kers only taught their male descendants.

Uncle Lim and Michael’s father were third-generation heads of their respective family businesses and raised their children with nothing but hard-earned skill – one thin layer of dough at a time. Though now semi-retired, both men used to be notoriously workaholic and had to be dragged kicking and screaming to take any time off at all.

EOS M6, EF-M22mm f/2 STM lens, f/2.8, 22mm, 1/250 sec, ISO200

We chose a pancake lens to get a nice depth of field in this tight close-up that shows off just how thin each piece of popiah skin is.

The similarities go on: both families used to also produce handmade noodles before choosing to specialise in popiah skins. They now sell 20-30 kilogrammes of popiah skins a day. On weekends, they sell their own popiah (rolled up with house-made fillings). Their busiest period is Chinese New Year, when the whole clan had to be conscripted to help meet demand. Customers recognise the superior quality of their product and are happy to pay a premium price – both families’ popiah skins are the priciest ones in their respective countries.

Their dough used to be mixed by hand – an incredibly laborious task – and they only switched to an industrial-grade mixer relatively recently. The dough mixture is determined by feel rather than a fixed recipe, and the raw dough’s consistency can vary according to each individual’s preference, though the finished skins turn out almost the same. 

Even their family heirlooms are the same: a set of heavy, flat-bottomed cast-iron woks that they describe as ‘antique’ and are no longer sold anywhere.

EOS M6, EF-M28mm f/3.5 MACRO IS STM lens, f/3.5, 28mm, 1/50 sec, ISO1600

Speed and precision are essential in the craft of making popiah skins.

Then there’s the fame. Uncle Lim has been featured in numerous food-related TV shows. Michael has worked with a beer brand which brought him all the way to New York to demonstrate his skills; and is featured prominently in the Singapore government’s campaign to preserve the country’s hawker culture.

Looking towards the future, both families are committed to keeping their heritage alive. Michael has left his job as a pharmacist to take over the family business full-time. Gary, Rebecca and their sister Guat Keow are taking turns to help their father make popiah skins and keep the family business going. They also plan to teach the skill to their kids when they’re old enough. Home cooks, hawkers and restaurateurs in Singapore and Penang won’t have to worry about losing their supply of high-quality popiah skins any time soon.

EOS M6, EF-M22mm f/2 STM lens, f/4.0, 22mm, 1/100 sec, ISO100

The stretch test – showing how resilient each popiah skin is despite being so thin.

Having shared a single starting point four generations ago, the Lims and the Kers have grown in remarkably similar ways along parallel paths across two countries. We are honoured to have facilitated this meeting which brought them together again. It was beautiful to watch and a joy to shoot: this long-overdue ‘family reunion’ between people bound by skill rather than blood.

And we have high hopes this won’t be the last they see of each other.

EOS M6, EF-M22mm f/2 STM lens, f/4.0, 22mm, 1/100 sec, ISO100

The future of the craft – from left: 4th-generation masters Gary Lim, Michael Ker and Rebecca Lim. A higher ISO speed and wider aperture allowed us to capture this shot even in the dim interior of the shop.


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