It is not every day that you get the opportunity to have the God of Fortune bless your huat kueh (prosperity cake) in person.
So the scene at the Loyang Tua Pek Kong temple as the clock struck midnight to mark the first day of Chinese New Year was one of raucous anticipation. Some 800 devotees had gathered around Mr Alec Chia, 47, for his blessings of good fortune.
Mr Chia, sweating profusely under his intricate three-layered God of Fortune costume, was almost at the end of an eight-hour work day involving three different venues.
Such demanding appearances are something the veteran God of Fortune has been doing at the temple for more than 10 years, yet they are only a small part of his role as the "Caishen of Singapore".
Particularly popular during Chinese New Year, the God of Fortune or Caishen is a Chinese deity believed to bless people with luck, wealth and economic opportunities. Cards, posters and red packets often bear his likeness, and jolly mascots armed with gold ingots are often seen at shopping malls.
Mr Chia is probably the most seasoned local God of Fortune performer. Although his Caishen "career" formally kicked off only in 2003, he seemed destined for the role from a young age. He first played Caishen as a 15-year-old student in a school play before going on to star in a variety show alongside Moses Lim in the mid 1990s. He played Caishen in place of the veteran actor during a Chinese New Year countdown show in 1995.
Mr Chia then worked in a crystal shop for three years, where he was often asked to dress up as the deity during the festive season.
LIVING AND BREATHING THE ROLE
You must believe that you are Caishen. You are giving hope to the people, and you must believe in yourself before you can get people to believe you.
MR ALEC CHIA, on what makes a good God of Fortune.
He eventually quit and took up freelancing as a fengshui master so there would be more time to pursue the Caishen role.
In 2003, Mr Chia got his big break performing at River Hongbao. It boosted his profile and led to many engagements. Business has been booming since.
Mr Chia now owns five custom-made costumes made with fabric from China, Thailand, Nepal and even Tibet. His headdress and robes are adorned with jade, crystals and other precious metals. The costumes cost more than a thousand dollars each and can weigh up to 6kg.
Besides dressing the part, the secret to being a good Caishen is having flair.
"You must believe that you are Caishen. You are giving hope to the people, and you must believe in yourself before you can get people to believe you," says Mr Chia.
But playing the God of Fortune is not all fun and games. Mr Chia has encountered unexpected situations with people who were uncomfortable with his presence.
Recounting an incident at a famous Chinese restaurant a few years ago where he had been invited to mingle with customers, he says: "There were some patrons when they see me, like see ghost... They were scared and uncomfortable because of religious beliefs."
One woman even pointed a cross at him. Mr Chia says he tried to reassure her, saying: "Don't worry, I am something like Santa Claus but the Chinese version."
He admits he enjoys the limelightbut it's bringing joy to people that really lights up his day.
In 2004, he travelled to Sri Lanka for nearly a month with the Maha Karuna Buddhist Society as part of post-tsunami efforts, where he distributed drinks, water and candy to the children. It was just all in a day's work for the modern-day Caishen.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 19, 2018, with the headline ''I'm like a Chinese Santa Claus''. Print Edition | Subscribe
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