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When Lizzy first told me that we should check out this joss paper making shop further down the road from our office, I was quite taken aback by the choice of subject.
Me: “A what?”
Lizzy: “Oh… you know, a shop that make those paper houses that they burn for the dead.”
(Lizzy grew up in an environment that was not the least bit ‘pantang’ [superstitious], so excuse her casual references to the subject.)
You see, I have always been rather afraid of these things especially those life size paper dolls meant for the dead. I guess I have been watching too many Hong Kong horror flicks that I am now beginning to imagine things.
For those who are unfamiliar with this Chinese tradition, joss paper is known as ghost or spirit money meant for the dead. This shop, Chiang Pow Joss-Paper Trading, makes paper offerings such as dolls, bicycles, servants, cars and even mansions!
Out of curiosity, I decided to ask Madam Chiang, the lady boss of the shop, if she fears spirits, considering that she makes a living from “them”. Without hesitation, she answered loudly, “Of course not, we are doing a good deed for them. Why should we be afraid?” Impressed by her gung-ho attitude, I went around the shop asking the other employees if they shared the same sentiment. And all of them gave me the same answer but definitely not before giving me a smile to suggest that I was being naïve for thinking they would.
Madam Chiang has been running the shop with her son for 3 years in Joo Chiat Road but she has had prior experience in this line for over than 30 years. She first picked the trade in Malaysia, and had been working for others before her son suggested opening their own shop.
When asked if this tradition would ever be lost, there were mixed feelings in the shop. Most of the employees felt that it would be preserved as long as there are still Chinese people around while Madam Chiang gave an entirely different answer. She was not too optimistic about the future of joss-paper making. In fact, she felt that it would be retired in the coming years as the amount of work put in is simply too taxing.
“Moreover, the younger generations are not interested in such things”, she lamented.
Some of us may frown at their occupation, especially their dealings with the dead, but I guess it is often because we fail to understand where they are coming from and we tend to judge, simply by looking at things on the surface. I have learnt a lot from my time spent in the shop and as I recount my experience with Madam Chiang and company. It was several afternoons filled with joy and laughter. (Madam Chiang was completely sold to Jeremy’s charms, as with most other aunties we encounter. –Lizzy) Almost every other minute, I would break out in laughter because of her sly and quirky sense of humor, and was also equally touched by how warmly they accommodated us despite their hectic working schedule.
This is Chiang Pow Joss-paper Trading shop and it is found along Joo Chiat Road.
More pictures on our Flickr page.