Ghostly Gifts for the Dead Could Be a Dying Art in Singapore

SINGAPORE ~ Wu Yuhua’s hands moved effortlessly as she cut thin slips of paper and plastered them onto a life-size bamboo frame moulded into the shape of a woman.

Around the 55-year-old artisan, intricate paper models of Mercedes Benz saloons, maids carrying beverage trays and three-storey mansions were neatly arranged against the walls, awaiting delivery to customers.

Wu is one of the owners of Nam Cheong Limited, a family business that makes customised paper effigies burnt as Taoist offerings to the dead in wealth-obsessed Singapore.

“These effigies are meant for those who have passed on, as gifts from the departed’s family to ensure the deceased can be comfortable in the afterlife,” explained Wu.

According to a 2000 census, Buddhists and Taoists constitute 53.5 percent of the predominantly ethnic-Chinese city-state’s population.

The practice originated in Taoism, whose followers believe the paper objects, when burnt, will transcend into the afterlife and provide the same material comfort to the deceased as they would in the real world.

“This animism comes under the umbrella of Taoism,” said Ronni Pinsler, a researcher who has been studying Taoist beliefs and practices for almost 40 years.

“It stems from the origin of the general human belief, the animistic belief of natural forces,” he added.

The practice is also evolving with the times, said Master Wei Yi, a priest in the Singapore Taoist Federation.

“Paper cars and mansions surfaced only in the past decade. The items may vary and advance along with technology. However, the fundamental idea has not changed,” he said.

This has, however, posed a new challenge to effigy-maker Wu, who has been in the business since she was 15.

“The hardest things to make are new, modern items like computers,” she said.

Wu sells her wares in customisable “packages” similar in concept to restaurant menus.

A standard “set” including a mansion, a maid and a car (choose your own make) goes for S$1,500 (US$1,041).

Customers who are willing to fork out more can also order specific items to complement the packages, such as yachts and computers as well as more personalised items.

“I made a bowling ball for a person who had passed on. He was really into bowling when he was alive so the ball was to commemorate him through his hobby,” Wu said.

Wu fears the funeral-effigy industry might be a dying art in Singapore.

“Now, no one wants to take up this job, it is slowly being phased out. Many people do not believe in the traditions any more,” she said wistfully.

Wu also said that a migration of Taoist believers to Buddhism was another factor affecting the labour-intensive industry.

However, researcher Pinsler believes the distinctions between Taoism and Buddhism have been blurred amongst Chinese communities, and Taoist traditions have become part of Buddhist popular culture.

Yeo Hung Teo, a paper effigy maker who specialises in creating structures of gods and pagodas for religious rites, said even Buddhist temples have approached him to build structures for their ceremonies.

“They ask me to make structures such as dragonboats and effigies of Da Shi Ye,” he said.

Da Shi Ye is the Buddhist god of the underworld, and devotees will pray to him during the lunar seventh month – also known as the “Hungry Ghosts” month – which falls in August.

Notwithstanding the differences between religions, the purpose of burning the effigies remains the same, said Pinsler.

“If you love someone, this is one way of remembering them. It is a primitive way, but it is a way of loving them nonetheless,” he said.

“Whether this person receives a car or a house, it is a thought process that remembers the person departed.”

Wu said the paper offerings provide tangible benefits to the living as well.

“These items work as a balm for the family of the deceased, they allow them to ease the pain in their hearts. They are a form of reassurance that the deceased will be well taken care of in the afterlife.”

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