If the number of joss paper merchants keep decreasing, does it mean the netherworld will face hyperinflation?

Imponderables aside, the joss paper trade might really need to reinvent the wheel rather than just burn paper versions of it.

By Tan Xing Qi | May 21, 2014

With a bevy of gadgets on display, the shop looks like one of those IT shops found in Funan DigitaLife Mall or Sim Lim Square.

But it is no Challenger.

In fact, the shop’s clientele care little about warranty or technical specifications. They just want to buy the latest iPhones and tablets and set them on fire.

These carbon copy replicas, after all, work better in the netherworld.  
 

Traditional joss paper store, Ban Kah Hiang, located at Jalan Bukit Merah

 
Four-decade business

Ban Kah Hiang is a traditional joss paper store.

There are currently two shops: The original flagship store was established more than 60 years ago at Tiong Bahru Market. It was and still is the go-to store for many Taoist or Buddhist devotees.

The other one, looking rather cheery with its red signboard, currently occupies two units at the foot of Block 107, Jalan Bukit Merah. It has been there for 14 years.

The burning of offerings to ancestors and the gods is a form of filial piety and is often performed during Chinese New Year, Hungry Ghost Festival or Qing Ming Festival.
 

Owner Teo Chuan Choon followed in his father’s footsteps and got into the joss paper business

 
For the Jalan Bukit Merah shop, its owner is Teo Chuan Choon, 55, who has been in this line for some 40 years. He followed in his father’s footsteps and went into the joss paper trade.

Prior to Bukit Merah, this shop of his was located at Alexandra Road and Kim Pong Road.

The original flagship shop still exists at Tiong Bahru market and is managed by his younger brother.

Being in this line for that long, nothing has surprised Teo — not even the changes in consumers’ shopping habits for the dead.

“In the past, it’s very simple. We only have one type of shoes and clothes. There’s not much of a choice,” says Teo in a mix of Hokkien and Mandarin.

Nowadays, upmarket labels like Louis Vuitton adorned the paper clothing and even the latest gadgets are commonplace. Luxurious cars with chauffeurs are a must. And if you think owning a convertible is too mainstream, consider buying a plane for your ancestors.

This is one trick this old trade has employed to keep up with the relentless pace of time.

The creativity doesn’t stop there. “I have even received customised orders such as a fishing rod and a jackpot machine,” Teo says.

His products range from 30 cents for a stack of joss paper to thousands of dollars for more intricate and elaborate paper offerings. A three-storied bungalow costs at least $8,000. The jackpot machine? $400.  

 

Business that thrives on personal touch

But what Ban Kah Hiang is really known for is its heritage and services, which explains its longevity.

Not only does the shop take customised orders, it also educates customers on the correct things to buy for different occasions.
 

Ranee Joi-Sa, wife of Teo, has come to know about the ins and outs of the business as well

 
Ranee Joi-Sa, Teo’s wife, plays the part of immaculate storekeeper. Quick and tidy, with an awareness of where different types of joss paper and offerings are kept in every nook and cranny of the shop, the 52-year-old’s competence extends beyond knowing where to locate the various items but to the subject matter as well.

For example, she explains that youngsters, for all their preference for innovative products, such as green tea scented and smokeless joss sticks, do not necessarily understand the basics.

For instance, different dialect groups use different types of joss paper. The Hokkien and Hakka community use the Man Mian Jin (paper entirely in gold) and Man Mian Yin (entirely in silver), and both types have to be burnt together. “Sometimes, even mediums call me for advice!” Teo says with a hearty laugh.

Product knowledge, you see, is an important aspect in this line of work. While Ranee, who is Thai, manages the shop, Teo takes charge of distribution. Ban Kah Hiang has been a regular supplier of offerings to many temples and even companies such as the Jumbo Group.
 

Will this business still be around in years to come?

 
As a 55-year-old who has been in this line for so long, he has witnessed the dire straits of the only trade he knows. As a member of the Singapore Religious Goods Merchants Association, which in its heyday had more than 200 joss paper merchants, he has seen it decline to less than 40 remaining today.

Teo attributes this sharp decline to the lack of interest among youngsters for this line of work and the merchant trade — and there is nothing to lure them in with no immediate solution. “If we don’t sell these things, no one will,” Teo tells Mothership.sg while exuding a kind of weariness accumulated from his four decades spent surrounded by bamboo paper.

He says he wants to retire but still soldiers on for the responsibility that comes with the job. He hopes his son, 26-year-old Alex Teo, will take over the family business, but the younger Teo’s immediate aim is to carve out his own career and tells his father he will naturally take over but the time isn’t right. Yet.

As time speeds past this dying trade, you might wonder what’s the next chapter in this story. But given the trade’s inclination for invention, don’t be surprised to find the latest Google Glass in Ban Kah Hiang in the very near future.

Or Ban Kah Hiang launching an app for your smartphone with in-app purchases.  

Soon.

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About Tan Xing Qi

In between episodes of Breaking Bad and The Sopranos, Xing Qi deals T-Shirts to unsuspecting Singaporeans through a roadside stall, which, ironically, is not a physical stall.

 

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