A necklace with chess pieces. Photo by Salhani Ibrahim.
“Upcycling creates a mindfulness of how our actions affect others and the environment,” says

An early retiree finds a new career making steampunk jewellery, writes Aznim Ruhana Md Yusup

A CAREER as a property agent did not suit Janet Wong Li Yoong, 52, so she decided to retire. But years of doing the job with her husband had left them with many keys around the house, so Wong started to upcycle them into jewellery and unique artworks.

At the same time, she figured selling these pieces would be a good way of earning some money without leaving the house.

“I’m still helping my husband with his work as a property agent,” she says. “At home, I also rescue cats and dogs and put them up for adoption. But with my daughter already working, I want a more relaxing life. That’s how I spend my days now – making jewellery.”

Wong doesn’t do “cute-cute” jewellery, as she puts it. She prefers working with metal. Given the choice of sewing or welding machine, she’ll pick the latter. But she’s renting her home so she has to settle for the former.

“I enjoy the challenge of repurposing items such as empty perfume bottles, cutleries, seashells, scrap metal, keys and broken ceramic pieces. I don’t plan my designs, I have a mannequin at home so I put pieces on the mannequin and see what works.”

Wong’s rings and bracelets have been described as steampunk. Photo by Salhani Ibrahim.


Wong’s style has been described as steampunk, a look inspired by brutal-looking hardware from the early Industrial Age in Europe combined with the romantic fashion of 19th century England. The name comes from the use of steam-powered engines that started in this era, but the aesthetic is completely made up.

Fans of steampunk see it as a kind of alternate history where the landscape is dominated by machines that run on steam and clockwork.

Meanwhile, the look is heavy on metal pieces that are made with artisan-like craftsmanship.

This is reflected in Wong’s creations such as pendants made of old watch components and bracelets from unused metal buttons. Brass wire is intertwined with see-through chess pieces to make a necklace.

She also works with resin and polymer, combining it with old keys for a different necklace. There are robot figures from key knobs, with little metal pieces for eyes and hair.

It’s a bit unusual. “Not everybody will like what you make but there will be somebody who does, and they will buy your products. But even if there’s no buyer, it’s not such a big loss to me,” says Wong.

Wong puts up her products on the Carousell online marketplace, selling about 20 pieces a month. She used to sell at weekend bazaars but an accident at home left her with a broken arm.

Wong needed a year to recover, and nowadays she’s no longer able to carry the tables and merchandise to physical markets hence her decision to focus on a virtual business.

“The upcycling culture is not popular here,” she says sadly. “You can see many people dumping rubbish everywhere instead of trying to reuse them. Upcycling creates a mindfulness of how our actions affect others and the environment.”

Feeling brave from the response to her steampunk handiwork, Wong is keen to expand her artistic side. She has an idea on a mixed media painting, using paint, fabric and metal to create a one-of-a-kind piece.

Using doorknobs and keys to make robot-like figures. Photo by Salhani Ibrahim.


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