Paper Gods

Posted by on Sep 8, 2017 in Campaigns | No Comments

Kim zua (literally ‘gold paper’ in Hokkien) symbolises death and the netherworld. It is central to the age-old tradition of burning offerings for ancestors, which bridges the physical and the spiritual realms. For one man, however, kim zua also represents his livelihood and family legacy.

The term kim zua conjures up images of joss paper and paper effigies flickering in the flames, the resulting smoke mingling with the cloying scent of incense while prayers are dutifully chanted in the background.

For 29-year-old Alex Teo, however, kim zua is more than just a religious custom. As the current proprietor of Ban Kah Hiang Trading, a wholesaler and retailer for religious goods, kim zua is his livelihood and family legacy.

Alex and his wife, Zhi Juan, in their store. Image source: Cathlin Anabella

It’s not business, it’s personal

‘With over 70 years of experience in selling kim zua, Ban Kah Hiang Trading is widely considered to be a leader in the local religious goods industry. Its history began in the 1940s, when Alex’s grandfather, Teo Chong Lim, migrated to Singapore from China.  After World War II, he established an incense-manufacturing factory in Tiong Bahru, followed by a retail shop in Tiong Bahru market. By the 1960s, Ban Kah Hiang had gained a reputation as the go-to place for kim zua in Singapore.

Alex’s father, Teo Chuan Choon, expanded the business in the early 1980s with a second retail shop in Bukit Merah. Other than their own products, they also import religious goods such as incense, candles, oil and effigies from Taiwan and China. Their regular clientele include temples and corporations such as the Jumbo Group.

While Alex was initially resistant to joining the family business so soon, his father’s declining health persuaded him to take over the reins of Ban Kah Hiang in early 2016. “The thing about the nature of this business is nobody wants to take over because many don’t understand the culture,” he explained. “A lot of these shops are closing down. I don’t want to let our brand die.”

Rows of joss sticks lined up neatly, including ones manufactured by Ban Kah Hiang. Image source: Cathlin Anabella

The dwindling number of religious goods sellers in Singapore was not the only motivating factor for his move to the company. For Alex, the tradition of burning paper offerings and other paraphernalia is not just about religion. “It’s an important part of our ethnic identity as Chinese,” he said. “It’s more about our tradition of respecting our ancestors. “

He went on to explain that although most self-professed Buddhists no longer practice the religion actively—visiting the temple only once or twice a year—they still visit their deceased relatives’ tombs during significant occasions and purchase elaborate offerings to burn.

“So it’s really more like Chinese New Year, where you don’t have to have a religion to participate,” Alex said. “You do it out of respect for your ancestors, because it’s your family tradition… it’d be really sad if this cultural tradition just dies out.”

The sacred and the profane

The majority of Singaporeans would be familiar with the holy trinity of Chinese festivals—Chinese New Year, Qing Ming, and the Hungry Ghost Festival—that necessitate the burning of offerings to ancestors. However, did you know that people also buy joss papers and other offerings for personal milestones such as weddings and housewarmings?

In fact, according to Alex, some of his biggest clients are not even Chinese. During the Hungry Ghost Festival, when business is at its most brisk, the largest proportion of his sales comes from corporate clients, including multinational corporations (MNCs). Clueless employees of all stripes scurry down to his store at the behest of their bosses to procure kim zua for their companies. “Even the angmoh bosses!” Alex added.

But why would someone painstakingly go through the motions of an unfamiliar ritual that they may not believe in? Alex thinks it is a case of monkey see, monkey do. “These people see that every other company is doing it, so they should do the same,” he said. After all, no one can refuse the promise of prosperity and the protection from malevolent spirits that burning offerings are purported to bestow. They are just being typical Singaporeans: as Alex pointed out, they are “kiasu, don’t want to lose out!”

Keeping up with kim zua

One of the most fascinating aspects of Ban Kah Hiang is the breadth and ingenuity of their inventory of paper effigies.  In the store, one cannot help but marvel at the variety of paper goods on display—slot machines jostling with massage chairs, LED TVs and posh convertibles, facing shelves and shelves of household items that run the gamut from daily necessities like beauty products and food to top-of-the-line electronic devices such as the latest smartphone.

Keeping up with the latest consumer trends is necessary for the business’s survival. ”If we don’t bring in the trendy goods, customers will complain and ask, ‘Why are your items so boring?’ Then they’ll just buy their offerings elsewhere,” Alex said. “That’s why so many smaller shops have closed down—they’re not competitive enough.”

Wireless charging is the latest in-thing in the underworld. Image source: Cathlin Anabella

Even an industry catering to the departed is not immune to the winds of change. “Nowadays, the younger generation doesn’t want to buy the same products as their parents or grandparents. They’ll say it’s too outdated or boring, or there’s too much smoke from the joss sticks or incense,” Alex explained. Ban Kah Hiang acquiesce to such requests by procuring more innovative products such as green tea-scented joss sticks and scented incense coils reminiscent of decorative candles.

Indeed, every imaginable aspect of the religious goods industry has undergone modernisation—including its retail and distribution model. In an age of convenience and e-commerce, online stores dedicated to kim zua have sprouted up, replete with sleek interfaces and hip, eye-catching graphics. Might Ban Kah Hiang join the virtual realm in the near future?

“The thing about kim zua,” Alex hesitated, “is that you need knowledge of what to buy, and what each item means. Since many people don’t understand these things, we can educate them when they come to the store.” According to Alex, online stores are unable to provide such in-depth knowledge, leaving potential customers more confused than convenienced. Old-fashioned service, it turns out, is irreplaceable.

The future in nostalgia

It is unfathomable to imagine a Hungry Ghost Festival without red candles keeping vigil on the sidewalks, metal canisters full of joss paper and hell money sending prayers and wishes into the night sky, or Chinese funerals without extravagant effigies arranged prominently on the altars.

Yet Alex believes that his generation will be the last to experience this unique aspect of Chinese heritage.  He attributed it to a lack of knowledge: “Young people are just following what their parents are doing without really understanding it. So when their time comes, no one will be interested in practicing this tradition anymore, because they know nothing about it. It’s really tough lah.”

He is not throwing in the towel just yet. Alex remains determined to raise awareness about the cultural significance and proper practices of kim zua. For instance, members of the public tend to complain about deteriorating air quality whenever the Hungry Ghost Festival rolls around. To counter this, Ban Kah Hiang sells joss paper and hell money that is not only recyclable, but also produces less smoke.

Ban Kah Hiang has also produced a brochure to educate the public on the proper way of burning offerings, cautioning against scattering joss paper everywhere, and encouraging the burning of offerings in a bin to “keep the surroundings clean” besides ensuring that the gods and ancestors are effectively worshipped (if the offerings are not fully burned, the spirits are unable to “receive” it!).

The do’s and don’ts of burning offerings. Image source: Ban Kah Hiang Facebook page

Given the time and opportunity, Alex would love to do more to champion the religious goods industry. As for the time being, “I’m just doing the best I can for the store,” he smiled.

There is a saying: the only constants in life are death and taxes. Through Singapore’s transformation from former British colony to futuristic city-state, Ban Kah Hiang has remained a stalwart in the local cultural landscape. We can only hope the gods grant them many more years of longevity.

Written by: Cathlin Anabella

This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign

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