It’s quiet. The old housing estates loom silently under an overcast sky, their corridors devoid of movement and activity. The wind, channelled by the estates howled into my ears; unwelcoming and chilling.
Nestled in the central part of Singapore close to three upscale hotels is Jalan Minyak, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Singapore with a violent criminal history.
In this old neighbourhood, the only sign of activity that’s most notable is a small coffee shop and an old shop beside it — its yellowed walls and furniture stand as a testament to its age.
Just by the entrance lay stacked paper houses that are an all-too-familiar sight during the Hungry Ghost Festival.
It is the home of Yew Chye Religious Goods Trading, a paper-making business where houses, dolls and cars are made for family members to honour their dead; another dying trade in Singapore.
As I walked to the entrance, Mr Lai, a young-looking 64-year-old boss, looked up at me as he sat on a stool working, and with a toothy grin, he warmly welcomed me with a question: “Are you here to photograph?”, after noticing the camera slung to the side of my shoulder.
Prior to entering the paper-making business, Mr Lai had worked a multitude of odd jobs, ranging from a painter, to a mechanic and even a repairman.
“But whichever job I went to I always got fired from it and I didn’t know why.” He chuckled happily as he moved about his workspace, stripping and bending bamboo and tying them up with paper strips.
One day, when Mr Lao was a young man in his 20s searching for a job, he came across a papermaker’s shop in the old Chinatown, and the boss of the shop was sitting on that same stool that he still has, while making two paper horses.
“So I said to him: boss, you come out ah I help you tie,” he said as he gestured to the stool. And just like that, he began his journey into the paper-making business.
“I have a very special luck!” he exclaimed heartily as he reflected on his beginnings.
But over time as he improved his skills of the craft, his old boss’ son grew up. “Then suddenly he kicked me out of the business,” Mr Lai said straightforwardly. His face was expressionless as he recalled that moment.
Nevertheless, Mr Lai’s ‘special luck’ struck again. While looking for another job, the people over at the old Bishan cemetery called Peck Shan Theng, was looking for someone, and so he went over to help them.
It was after 10 years working in this trade that Mr Lai decided to open his own shop at Chinatown in 1990, before moving to Jalan Minyak after six years.
The act of burning such gifts of money and materialistic items, most commonly seen during the time of the Hungry Ghost Festival, is a predominately Taoist and traditional Buddhist practice held annually from August to September.
“Back then I didn’t know I was going to do this. To me, it was just like getting a job,” Mr Lai recounted, “I have practically no knowledge of how to properly make certain stuff like houses, for example.”
He jokingly pointed to the paper houses at the corner, while at the same time making a bamboo skeleton for a paper effigy. “I just ask myself, if other people can do it why can’t I? So I just use my mind and imagine how I would do it.”
Mr Lai didn’t think his business would actually succeed when he first started, “I wanted to show my old boss’ son that I can do without him. I also thought it would fail, but it didn’t!” he paused for a moment, eyes gazing towards the entrance as he reflected.
“But I didn’t know that the more I did it, the better I would get.”
To Mr Lai, when it comes to doing custom works, the ideas just come naturally. “It’s not like it takes a lot of time, it’s all on the spot one, I also don’t know how”, said Mr Lai.
As we began talking about his works from the past, he grew excited. “Come, I show you!”, he exclaimed happily, before digging out an old photo album from the depths of a messy shelf.
Like a proud father showing off his kids’ achievements, he said: “These are my works”.
“You see the fences, they are all individually cut and glued together one eh”, as he gestured proudly towards the picture.
But there is one piece of work that he will never forget, a paper effigy of a set of 13 golf clubs.“Back then when I was in my 30s, a man came to my shop carrying the golf clubs; I thought he was going upstairs but he came to me”.
“Ah Gor, I want this to be made can?”
“Can, I want S$400,” mentioned Mr Lai, as he grinned from ear to ear.
He exclaimed,“That customer got [a] shock [be]cause he got the set for S$399!”, he roared in hearty laughter. “But when I was done with it, he loved it a lot”, he added.
Much has changed over the years. Paper-making businesses similar to Mr Lai’s have been closing down all over the country.
“In the 90s I had eight assistants under me. But now they’re old and those who have passed away are gone, and now only me and my female assistant are left”, he mentioned.
“I’m still searching for an apprentice to take over me,” he paused momentarily, looking down at his paper craft.“But it is a very hard job, and the current generation does not seem interested”.
But Mr Lai remains hopeful about the future of the paper-making industry. “This trade wouldn’t disappear because there’ll always be people who have dreams or memories of their deceased family members wanting something and then they would get it for them.”
“So I’m going to do this all the way till I die or [until I find] an apprentice. Back then it was for money and survival, but now it’s more about helping other people to fulfil their dying wish”, Mr Lai smiled to himself.
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