S’porean father-son ghostbusters trade souls to receive power & banish demons from their clients
And boy are their stories beyond belief, but so real at the same time.
The Best of You Exhibition
19 September 2019 - 22 September 2019, 1000h-2100h
Our Tampines Hub
Since my days as a primary school student, I’ve always been intrigued by one particular shop at a mall near where I lived.
I remember the first day I stumbled upon it as an 11-year-old boy — a classmate had tipped me off to the existence of a shop at Katong Shopping Centre that sold Playstation games that may or may not have been genuine, and one afternoon after school, I dragged my grandmother to the blue complex that even back then seemed to me like an emporium from a different era.
A looming signboard
It didn’t take long for my attention to be completely diverted from my initial objective upon our arrival, though — to a shop front I noticed from outside, standing on the street, which interestingly had nothing particularly noteworthy in its window display. In fact, it was covered, apart from a large photo of a man who looked like a monk.
Otherwise nondescript, save, of course, for a large signboard that ran the length of the unit that read “GHOSTBUSTER”:
I plucked up the courage to walk up to it and peer through the heavy-looking glass door, noting faintly the presence of an altar of sorts, and a subtle scent of burning incense sliding silently through the gap between the door and the ground.
I don’t know what it was about it — maybe I’d read too many Russell Lee books — but I was utterly fascinated by it all, imagining what its covered windows and obscured entrance could possibly conceal.
That’s about all I recall of it, though; I was always too scared to linger long enough to take in more visual detail or to look further in, much less to try opening the door.
But every time I happened to pass Katong Shopping Centre, I’d look out for the storefront, wondering what exactly went on in there.
Meeting the Chews
Suffice to say, therefore, that when an opportunity was presented to me to spend a day at the shop, I grabbed it with both hands. My colleagues would be filming a video of and with the shop’s owners, and I was allowed to tag along.
My chance to satisfy my curiosity about “Ghostbuster” had finally arrived.
The day I returned with my colleagues, the first thing I noticed was how much the shopfront had changed over the years. Its front window display is now way more intriguing — showcasing a range of what I would later be told are cursed artefacts collected over years of successful ghostbusting.
There’s also now a huge flat-screen television that plays videos of the ghostbusters’ adventures and testimonials from clients on loop, every day, round the clock.
Inside the shop, Ghostbuster is a business run by Grandmaster Chew Hon Chin, 72, and his son, Senior Master Jeroen, 44.
According to their website, they provide a range of services from giving clients destiny consultations and enhancement to run-of-the-mill fengshui activities (prices aren’t stated, but one report done on them said they start at S$88).
But it’s their ghostbusting and exorcism that command the most attention, for obvious reasons.
We step in, and the Chews welcome us warmly, asking us what drinks we would like and promptly sending a staffer to a nearby 7-Eleven to buy them for us.
They lead us into their office, and its centrepiece hits us right away — an altar bearing numerous figures of Chinese deities, accompanied by an array of fruits, burnt joss sticks, cups of tea, and candles. It sounds like any other Chinese altar you might encounter, but getting up close with the very same thing that enthralled me as I peeked through the Ghostbuster shop entrance all those years ago was surreal.
Being cursed, then saved by the Jade Emperor
Sitting down in front of our cameras, the elder Chew is completely at ease. It’s no surprise, given the amount of media interviews he and his son have done over the years.
His journey into ghostbusting, he tells us in Mandarin, began in 2004 when he opened his shop.
How he got there is quite a story, though — he says that over the 12 years prior to then, Hon Chin had, in his own words, “felt that it was better to die than to live”.
Struck with some kind of illness, he tells us he visited many doctors, but none were able to cure him.
As it turned out, though, the grandmaster would later discover he had been cursed.
Finally, he prayed to the Jade Emperor, a Taoist deity, who he says lifted his curse — and in a vision, implored Hon Chin to pass it on by helping others.
But of course, that was not at all an easy thing for Hon Chin to do.
He admits that it wasn’t helping others that was top of his mind; it was exacting revenge against the person who cursed him.
“I thought about it over the course of three days. In my heart I had a lot of hatred, and this person (who had cursed me) had caused me all this misery. For 10-over years, my life was ruined.
But then the Jade Emperor told me I should let it go. And that’s when I truly walked away from (my hatred).”
Here’s where it emerges that the result of his encounter with the Jade Emperor was that Hon Chin was taken in as the deity’s mortal godson, entrusted with “invincible powers” that allow him to do his ghostbusting work.
From floundering at fortune-telling to seeing 50 clients a month
Yet, mastering the trade and learning to harness the power vested in him was itself a learning curve, as Hon Chin discovered on his first day on the job.
Two ladies had walked into the shop with a child; they wanted his fortune told.
“Fortune-telling! I don’t even know how to do it.
So then I started sweating. I kept asking them questions until finally one of the ladies asked me, ‘Eh do you know how to read people’s fortune? Why you keep on asking one?’”
Realising he had no clue what he was doing, Hon Chin let the ladies leave without charging them. He says that eventually, it was the Jade Emperor himself who would teach him how to tell fortunes.
That nightmarish first day was thankfully a far cry from where the grandmaster, and his Ghostbuster company, is today.
Hon Chin tells us that quite quickly he was seeing 30 to 50 clients a month, with media interest in his work coming in as early as 2005. He claims a 90 per cent “hit rate” now — out of 100 people he sees, 90 experience successful outcomes to their problems.
“Here, within a week, you will be able to see visible results after we have performed the necessary ritual.
(Problems) like your business not running smoothly, family quarrels, affairs — all these, once they come here, I will tell them what to do and within a month, they will see results.”
An exorcism straight from a Hollywood horror film
On a typical day, Hon Chin comes in around 11am and holds consultations with clients until 6pm.
He’s normally exhausted by the end of the day because of the effort required to channel a certain “energy” to perform his services.
“The energy I use is different from that used by other spirit mediums that might only perform a service for one to two hours. I use this energy the whole day so I tend to be more tired.
My radar is constantly open and looking. As soon as you walk in I’ll already know what your problems are.”
One case he tells us about that happened roughly three months ago was a lady possessed by a ghost of some sort.
He shows us footage of the exorcism, and while I regret not being able to show it to you, it honestly looked to me like something straight out of a Hollywood horror movie — chilling, to say the least.
To make things even creepier for me, the lady was sitting on a stool in front of the very same altar I stood next to as I watched the video.
In it, the grandmaster is seen putting two fingers to her forehead, while his other hand is supporting the lady’s head as she meows like a cat.
He tells us that prior to the start of the recording, the Chinese lady had been speaking in Tamil. A few seconds into the video the meowing stops and is replaced by an eerie cackle and words laced with a menacing tone.
Hon Chin’s gestures get more intense at this point and he starts brushing her down with a big fan-like object. “She’s speaking like a deity,” he says, describing the indistinguishable riddle — apparently about being invincible — she is muttering in Chinese.
All in all, Hon Chin tells us that this particular exorcism took 15 minutes, but he’s performed ones that take as long as 10 days.
How his son got into the family business
Today, the Ghostbuster team has been called into action yet again. We’re not about to see something as exciting as an exorcism, but a client is seeking their help with boosting the performance of his business.
However, it isn’t the grandmaster performing the required ritual. It’s being carried out by his son, Jeroen, instead. And if you thought the grandmaster’s encounter with the Jade Emperor was far out, wait till you read Jeroen’s own origin story.
Having previously been in the military, Jeroen describes himself as a former sceptic of his father’s work.
He first started to believe after a ritual performed by his father had helped his career.
Jeroen was on a trip to Nepal with Hon Chin when he first considered a career switch. His father was there for work, conducting a fengshui audit for the Thai embassy, and Jeroen was just tagging along “for fun, for the free trip”.
But he shares that one evening, at a night market, an American man came bounding up to his father.
“He was holding my dad saying, ‘Master Chew! Master Chew! Do you remember me?’ My dad can’t speak English so I helped him to do the translation and we realised that my dad had helped him a few years ago and now he’s able to travel around doing business, having a good life.
That changed my thoughts on (my dad’s) job. His job isn’t just an occupation to earn money or a trade where we trade on something to get money. But actually, he’s helping people. He’s helping people to get back their lives and to get back their hopes.”
Finding a “stronger” soul to accept the power needed to do the work — and transferring his soul into a tree
By that point, Jeroen’s father had already been asking him to consider joining the business and in 2005, he finally decided to take the plunge.
Still, there were a couple of obstructions that riddled his path to becoming an exorcist.
“I learnt that I might die if I join this line, after three years,” he says rather casually. It had to do, he explains, with the inability of his “life-force to receive certain power”.
If this concept is already tough to grasp, the solution they found to it was not only far more complex but also quite frankly threatens my suspension of disbelief — but let me try my best to explain it.
They had to find an older soul — one that would be strong enough to receive the kind of power Jeroen needed to be a ghostbuster — and transfer it into his body.
Now, one body can only house one soul, so that meant Jeroen’s soul would need to reside somewhere else — and sure enough, “it’s in a tree, a very big tree”.
Which, exactly? Jeroen cannot disclose its location, as cutting it down, he explains, will result in some serious repercussions. “Hopefully (someone won’t cut it down). Hopefully not. But we’ve backed it up already, in another tree. Into the cloud,” he adds, laughing.
Speaking about the supernatural in a completely matter-of-fact manner
If you’ve read up till this point and are thinking that it all sounds crazy, join the club. I can’t help but be thrown off by the nonchalance by which the Chews recount these insane-sounding experiences.
Jeroen tells us, for instance, with an entirely straight face and in a matter-of-fact manner, about how as a young boy he was haunted by a “headless water ghost” — as if what he’s saying is a completely normal experience for any other male youth.
As strange as it may be to say about a bunch of people working as exorcists, there are no airs of mysticism about the business. Instead, hearing Hon Chin and Jeroen talk about their work almost sounds like a clinical discussion. They see a problem, diagnose it accordingly, and perform the required ritual.
A lot of these rituals are conducted at a temple in Geylang that’s dedicated to the Jade Emperor, which is where today’s ritual is performed as well.
Once we get there, its all business for Jeroen.
He dons a yellow robe and headdress — both embroidered with Taoist symbols and dragons, before lighting some joss sticks; the ritual has begun.
Jeroen steps outside the temple, in front of its entrance. With eyes closed, he holds the joss sticks in front of him in a horizontal position. His middle and ring finger work in tandem with his thumb to clasp the sticks, while his index and little finger are straightened forming a hand-sign similar to those thrown up at hard rock concerts.
He then spins around and proceeds to tap the doorposts of the temple’s entrance with a brush-like tool.
He later explains that that entire process is to welcome his “spiritual guardian” into the building.
His client, who is present at the ceremony, is then brushed down with a stack of Nobleman papers — an exercise where the ghostbuster seeks help from the Jade Emperor to bless the client — before going outside for a ritual called the flower bath.
It involves Jeroen dousing the client in fragrant water filled with five kinds of flowers and Thai lemons. Even standing a few metres away, I can smell the strong and pleasant aroma of the bath.
The flowered water, I’m told, washes away bad luck while giving the client good energy.
The next stage of the ritual has a name as spectacular as its aesthetics — the ring of fire. Here, an effigy representing the client is set alight in the middle of a circle of burning joss papers.
According to Jeroen, the ring of fire burns away all the client’s bad luck and seals in good energy.
An age-sapping energy
After the ritual, Jeroen is visibly drained. His face somehow seems more hollow than it was before, while his eye bags, to me at least, appear to have grown in size.
He entertains our questions politely, even managing a hearty laugh at some of our comments, but it’s plain to see that he is spent.
So had all this lived up to my years of anticipation and expectation?
In many ways, yes. Some of the conversations that were had, off-the-cuff casual comments, felt like they were extracted from a fantasy novel.
The trading of souls, visions of deities, and exorcism of meowing demons — these things certainly earned Ghostbuster some supernatural clout in my arguably still-unenlightened eyes.
But in other ways, the Chews seem so normal as well — at the end of it all, they’re simply a father-son duo dispensing services to those who need help, in ways they know how.
Before we leave, I steal one last glance at Jeroen. He’s seated now, hands on knees, the sheen of sweat on his forehead providing a reflective surface for the dying sunlight.
It’s pretty crazy that another person’s soul lives in his body now. He looks so human.
Top image by Andrew Koay