Gods do not get much respect these days. This I found out when I had to get into costume in the office of a restaurant. The three employees looked nonchalant, staring at their computers, despite there being a sweaty, half-naked man in the room, struggling to get into a red robe and a red hat.
Things like that must happen a lot when you work in a Chinese restaurant.
My gig as an actor wearing the costume of Cai Shen, the God of Fortune in Chinese folk religion, is short and simple.
Mr Jeffrey Chung, owner of Jeffrey Chung Models and my boss for the day, says: “Go forward, greet people, don’t wait for them to come to you.”
I am to clasp my hands in the traditional way and offer a “Gong Xi Fa Cai”. Take photos with people and if they want to poke you for good luck, let them, he says. I am alarmed by the last instruction.
I slip into loose white pyjama-like pants, which go over my jeans. A pillow tied around my waist bulks me up. The hat and beard go on. Then the red robes, studded with hundreds of hand-sewn sequins, go over my undershirt.
The beard I am to wear is, thankfully, not glued on but is tied around my mouth. The stiff material and loose strands are giving my nose a fierce itch. Mr Chung, who also runs the JCM Costume Rental agency, suggests I tie it over my nose, rather than under it, to avoid the worst of the nostril-tickling.
But that way makes it look as if a black curtain has sprouted from my lower eyelids. For the sake of being true to the craft, I opt for the more natural under-the-nose look, itchiness be damned.
Two comely “courtesans” in gauzy period outfits, Shirley Lim, 21, and Fay Lim, 22 (no relation) and a small crew of helpers set off with me.
We are to hand out goodie bags, each with a sample kueh, an orange and a $5 discount voucher for the Thai restaurant Parkway on Coleman, located in the Masonic Club Singapore in Coleman Street.
The restaurant, formerly known as Parkway Thai, needs to spread the word on its name change. This is where divine help is needed. We will “Gong Xi Fa Cai” and goodie bag our way down Coleman and turn back when all 300 bags are gone. That is the plan.
Then I step into the bright noon-day sun. The layer of face powder, meant to keep my shine down, bursts like a shattered dam. Rivulets of greasy sweat stream from hat to chin in mighty beige torrents.
The grand hat and imposing beard, symbols of my rank and power, begin to shift alarmingly on the slick surface of my skin. A busy street is no place for a wardrobe malfunction.
I am trapped inside the cage of the costume and the show must go on.
If there were to be a contest between plump, jolly bearded fellows who bring seasonal good cheer, Cai Shen beats Santa Claus hands down. Cai Shen makes St Nick look like Ebenezer Scrooge. The Chinese god bestows wealth on entire households while Santa drops off the odd doll or train set. In the music department, though, most would agree that Santa has the better repertoire.
While prayers to the God of Fortune are traditional during Chinese New Year, the costumed Cai Shen trend began taking off only about a decade ago, says Mr Chung.
He thinks that some famous fengshui master started the practice and soon, the bearded gods were seen in places where Chinese congregate, from casinos in Macau to shopping centres and parade floats in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.
“Courtesan” Fay Lim’s worst fear at events like these is the same as any other performer: tripping. “It’s such a long gown,” says Ms Lim, who is wearing heels. Mr Chung says that for jobs like this, she is paid up to $80 an hour. In the year-end high season, popular costume models can make up to $5,000 a month.
But right now, she is on pervert alert.
When people crowd around her for photos, some men will put their arms around her waist or brush her buttocks. She slaps their hands away. In her almost year-long career as a model, she has not had to make a police report but it is an option for men who cannot take a hint, she says.
Then there are the sneaky sickos who hold cameras up high to take cleavage shots, or down low to take upskirt pictures. Her grasp of the habits of the ninja picture-takers is impressive.
No matter what zodiac animal is ushered in by the new year, men, it seems, will always be pigs.
But Ms Lim never takes a job without backup. The crew helping to hold up the girls’ gowns or handing them goodie bags to give away are also keeping a discreet eye open for the bloke who is a little too keen on getting in touch with Chinese culture.
At the Peninsula Hotel, near the North Bridge Road junction, our little troupe is met with great excitement by some passers-by, mild enthusiasm by most and complete indifference by a few.
There are a few, both young and old, who look at my damp, furry face with something like, yes, an air of worship. Luckily for them, I am not a haughty god. I shake their hands and wish them good fortune. They smile and move on.
For about 30 minutes, I knew what it felt to be fussed over like a celebrity. The robes are a shortcut to fame and attention and the feeling is addictive. And at the very least, I can tell people that for a brief time, I was, in one very important sense, a Singapore idol.