A dying art, a labour of love

Traditional Hungry Ghost rites are becoming harder to sustain

Watching the fruits of his labour go up in flames within minutes is always a bittersweet experience for Mr Yeo Hung Teo, the owner of Yeo Swee Huat paper agency.

Located in Toa Payoh Industrial Park, the paper agency makes paraphernalia for funeral services throughout the year. But it is at its busiest during the Hungry Ghost Festival, which takes place from Aug 3 to Aug 31 this year.

It is a time when the souls of the dead are thought to be released from the netherworld to roam the earth.

Devotees make offerings of food and fake money to appease spirits during this period so that they will not bring bad luck into their lives.

Mr Yeo, 76, is the last local craftsman skilled in making large effigies used in the ghost month.

The perfectionist, who has been in the trade for 60 years, takes two weeks just to mould and paint the head of one such effigy. Another three staff members then take over, continuing with the construction of the body and limbs, taking four more days to complete a 4.9m-tall effigy.

They make around 25 of these god effigies in various sizes - the largest at 6.1m tall - during the seventh month in the lunar calendar. They also make effigies in advance for the following year and keep them in their warehouse.

Yeo Swee Huat is a Teochew company that Mr Yeo's father Yeo Swee Piow started in the 1960s. It is the go-to place for god effigies used in the Hungry Ghost month - especially those of Da Shi Ye, a deity with the power to stop wandering spirits from causing mischief on earth.

These effigies are believed to be needed in order to invite the gods to preside over the gathering and protect the area.

A longtime customer of the paper agency is Mr Tay Kim Teck, 62, who heads the "seven month committee" of the Singapore General Fish Association at Jurong Fishery Port. He budgets around $40,000 every year for a Hungry Ghost celebration during which priests conduct prayers and rituals for spirits.

This allows fish merchants to pay their respects to wandering spirits and give themselves peace of mind while hoping for a prosperous and smooth-sailing business.

Both Mr Tay and Mr Yeo say it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain these customary rites.

The older generation will get older and the younger generation are not interested in maintaining these practices and customs, often brushing them off as superstition.

Mr Yeo said that his two daughters are not interested in taking over his trade.

"It is a sunset industry and the skills will go with me to the coffin," he laments.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 25, 2016, with the headline 'A dying art, a labour of love'. Print Edition | Subscribe