It’s that time of the year again. The strong smell of smoke fills the air which indicates the beginning of the Hungry Ghost Festival.
We’re quite the superstitious lot. From lucky numbers and urban legends to sticking to a few rules for Hungry Ghost month, we love indulging in the unexplained.
For the unacquainted, the Hungry Ghost Festival (also known as 7th month) is in full force, which is also the time when getai and kim zua companies enjoy their peak sales.
But just like many traditions, the practice of burning kim zua is slowly fading away and no longer practiced by the younger generation unless reminded by their older relatives.
However, this hasn’t stopped 65-year old Li Yao An who has been making and selling religious paper offerings at his shop for almost 40 years.
A Dying Trade
Nestled within a housing estate in Jalan Minyak, Li Yao An runs Yew Chye Religious Goods Trading. In this old neighbourhood, the only notable sign of activity is a small coffee shop beside it – its yellowed walls and chipped paint stand as a testament to its age.
He prides himself on making his own paper offerings by hand, unlike others who’d import the kim zua instead. Having being in the business since the 1970s, Li is a master craftsman in this traditional trade.
As I walked to the entrance, Mr Li looked up at me as he sat on on a stool working and flashed me his widest smile. He welcomed me with a question: “Were you the one that called me yesterday?”
Prior to joining this business, Mr Li previously worked a multitude of odd jobs, ranging from a plumber to an electrician.
“I started doing this not out of choice. But because I’m not educated. It’s a skill I picked up from a guy in Chinatown”, he exclaimed as he moved about his workspace, stripping and bending bamboo which I then realised was used to make the skeleton for a paper effigy.
Mr Li starts his day as early as 4/5am and knocks off at 9pm everyday.
“I have a responsibility to my customers. I open everyday, 7 days a week. Because I agreed to take the business, so I open everyday to work”, he added.
Despite the long hours at work, one can tell how happy and passionate he is when it comes to crafting his own paper offerings by hand. He complained that it was back-breaking work but also added that he could not imagine doing anything else besides what he’s doing now.
As we began talking about his works from the past, his eyes widened and immediately got out of his seat to reach out for an old photo album that was stored within his stack of paper and brochures – an organised mess they say.
Just like a proud father, he said: “These are some of my favourite works!”
He flipped through the album and told us more about each photo.
“The most expensive one I’ve made was 13 golf club replicas. This man brought 13 golf clubs to me, and asked me to make replicas of all 13.”
Mr Li typically takes a few weeks to a month to finish each order as it involves a lot of thought for the creation process . However, if the end product isn’t satisfactory, he will redo the entire process because he believes that it’s his responsibility to deliver proper kimzuas to honor the dead.
Traditional Materials And Methods
40 years have passed but Mr Li still uses traditional method and materials from when he first learnt the trade. For instance, he has kept the type of paper consistent over the years. He also makes his own glue from rice flour as it is cheaper and saves him time from going out to buy whenever he runs out.
Mr Li also recycles the flyers he receives to make shoes for the dolls.
“Come I show you how to make. Very easy one!”
A 40 Year Old Journey
Much has changed over the years. Traditional kim zua includes houses and servants, while the more modern offerings include iPads, laptops, Rolex watches, and even treadmills.
“Uncle ah, then after this, who taking over your business?”
He paused momentarily and chuckled, “Not everybody can do what I do.”
“Nobody to pass it down to because nobody else knows or wants to learn how to do what I do.
Despite the rise of online stores that sells kim zua such as PO-PI.com.sg and STORE.KIMZUA.com.sg, Mr Li shared that he still has plenty of customers coming to him requesting for his service as “nobody else does what I do”.
Making paper offerings is not just a livelihood to him. It’s an art that he believes will die with him someday.
“I will do this for as long as I am able to walk and work, until the day it’s time for me to sleep”, he smiled to himself.
Yew Chye Religious Goods Trading
Address: 5 Jalan Minyak, #01-330, Singapore 161005
Contact No.: 6734 3389
(Header Image Source: Discover SG)